On August 10, Google announced that it would be updating its algorithm the following week to include a new ranking signal for the number of "valid copyright removal notices" it receives for a given site.
Do you think Google's addition of this signal is a good thing for search results? Let us know in the comments.
“Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results,” said Google SVP, Engineering, Amit Singhal, at the time. “This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.”
One might have expected the removal request floodgates to have been opened upon this news, but that does not appear to be the case. In fact, interestingly, it has been kind of the opposite, according to Google's Transparency Report.
Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points out that from August 13 to August 20, the number of URLs requested to be removed from Google search per week, actually decreased, going from 1,496,220 to 1,427369. It's only a slight decrease, but the fact that it decreased at all, following this news, is noteworthy.
When Google first announced the algorithm change, it immediately sparked a great deal of criticism from bloggers and webmasters and concern from consumer groups. “In particular, we worry about the false positives problem,” the EFF said at the time. “For example, we’ve seen the government wrongly target sites that actually have a right to post the allegedly infringing material in question or otherwise legally display content. In short, without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won’t make similar, over-inclusive mistakes, dropping lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results without recourse for the speakers.”
Public Knowledge has spoken out about the change as well. Senior staff attorney John Bergmayer previously said in a statement, “Sites may not know about, or have the ability to easily challenge, notices sent to Google. And Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors. Sites that host a lot of content, or are very popular, may receive a disproportionate number of notices (which are mere accusations of infringement) without being disproportionately infringing. And user-generated content sites could be harmed by this change, even though the DMCA was structured to protect them."
“Google needs to make sure this change does not harm Internet users or the Internet ecosystem,” he added.
Interestingly enough, Public Knowledge actually receives contributions from Google, as indicated in new court document Google provided in the Oracle case. "Google has contributed to Public Knowledge for years before the complaint in the case at bar was filed," wrote Google attorney Robert Van Nest.
Regarding inaccurate and intentionally abusive copyright removal requests, Google says, "From time to time, we may receive inaccurate or unjustified copyright removal requests for search results that clearly do not link to infringing content. An independent, third-party analysis of how frequently improper and abusive removal requests are submitted was conducted in 2006."
That was six years ago, and does little to set webmasters' minds at ease. On an FAQ page, Google lists a number of examples of requests that were submitted that were "clearly invalid," and notes that it did not comply with any of them.
In case you're wondering how many of the requests Google does comply with, the company says on the same page, "We removed 97% of search results specified in requests that we received between July and December 2011."
"We remove search results that link to infringing content in Search when it is brought to our attention, and we do it quickly," Google adds. "As of May 2012, our average processing time across all removal requests submitted via our web form for Search is approximately 10 hours. However, many different factors can influence the processing time for a particular removal request, including the method of delivery, language, and completeness of the information submitted."
As far as webmasters being informed of the issue by Google, the company says, "When feasible and legal to do so, we try our best to notify users to give them an opportunity to submit a counter-notice in response to copyright removal requests. For Search, it is extremely difficult to provide meaningful notice to webmasters whose pages have been identified in copyright removal requests, because we do not necessarily know their identities or have an effective means of contacting them. If users have registered with our Webmaster Tools as web site owners, we will notify them there. We also share a copy of qualifying copyright removal requests with the public site Chilling Effects, where a webmaster may inspect it as well."
For the past month, Google says 5,680,830 URLs have been requested to be removed from 31,677 domains by 1,833 and 1,372 reporting organizations. The top copyright owners in the past month have been Froytal Services, RIAA member companies, Microsoft, NBCUniversal and BPI. The top specified domains have been filestube.com, torrenthound.com, isohunt.com, downloads.nl and filesonicsearch.com.
You can see all copyright removal requests here. You can see a big list of 133,502 specified domains here. A list of 9,660 reporting organizations is available here. The list of over ten thousand copyright owners is here.
All data reflects copyright removal notices received for search since 2011, with some omissions, which include requests for products other than Google Search (like YouTube and Blogger), and requests submitted by means other than Google's web form (such as fax or written letters).
It's important to note that while Google is now using the number of removal requests a site receives as a ranking factor, it is still only one of over two hundred factors. But the negative SEO ramifications of the signal still have people worried. Negative SEO was a growing concern before this signal was even announced, particularly as it's related to bad links and the Penguin update. Now there is concern that competitors can submit notices, and influence Google. Whether this can be done successfully or not really remains to be seen. Google seems to be giving the impression that it cannot, as Google only complies with "valid" requests, but when was the last time Google executed an algorithm update flawlessly?
Google even recently reworded its help page for the question "Can competitors harm ranking?". It used to say, "There's almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index." It was changed to say, "Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index."
But, as the image above shows, it doesn't appear that Google's announcement has led to too a substantial increase in attempted abuse so far. That doesn't mean it's not possible to abuse it, and that people aren't trying to abuse it. People were probably already trying to abuse it. While the number may be down since the announcement, the greater trend is clearly that of substantial growth in the number of requests. It will be surprising if the trend does not ultimately continue upward. We're still waiting on the latest numbers to come out.
Are you worried about URL removal requests as a ranking signal? Share your thoughts in the comments.