To Google, the search ranking algorithm is sacred. It doesn't alter it for anything or anyone and only changes or expands it to make search results more relevant to users. That's the theory anyway and what Google would have you believe.
The latest change to the ranking algorithm is a controversial one. Google will start penalizing pirate sites in the search results. Specifically, it will start penalizing sites that receive "high numbers" of "valid" DMCA takedown notices.
"We aim to provide a great experience for our users and have developed over 200 signals to ensure our search algorithms deliver the best possible results," Amit Singhal, SVP of Engineering and top dog at Google Search, wrote.
"Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results," he said.
If you're familiar with how DMCA takedowns work, or copyright issues in general, you can see several problems with this. DMCA takedowns have always been abused and will continue to be abused, despite the law providing penalties for those issuing false, or misguided takedowns.
What this means is that Google has given people a simple tool to take down their competitors, just file "valid" notice after notice. That's an extreme example and one that Google may be prepared to tackle. The problem is, we don't know if it is prepared to tackle it.
Google uses vague words to describe the practice. "High numbers" could mean anything. 10 notices could be a high number for a site with just a few tens of pages or items. 10,000 notices is nothing to a site with millions of pages.
Google's own YouTube is the perfect example of a site that used to get and still gets a significant number of takedown notices. Some of them are even legitimate.
If Google were to apply its algorithm to YouTube, all videos on the site may get downgraded in the search results. But Google won't be penalizing the site since takedown notices against YouTube videos won't be taken into account by the new "signal."
Then there's the "valid" claim. A "valid" DMCA takedown notice, as far as Google is concerned, is not necessarily a notice that has been reviewed or approved by a judge, the only entity legally able to say that something is copyright infringement or not. For Google, "valid" means a notice it approves.
"Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law," Singhal wrote.
Obviously, Google is well aware of the problem. So it won't be removing any website or even any page out of its search results unless it receives a valid request.
In essence, copyright holders will be able to determine search results. This is what the movie and music industries have been wanting for years. Google has been reluctant to do it, but it needs music licenses, it needs movie licenses and so on for its Google Play stores. So it sacrificed its search results to get those licenses, it really boils down to this.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is rightfully worried. Not so much about the effect on pirate sites, but about the fact that entire process is "opaque." It will be hard to know whether the system works as intended or is being abused. And, of course, the system working as intended still doesn't make it a good one.