Has Google caved to pressure from copyright holders? Without explanation last Friday, the company announced that its search algorithm will soon start ranking down websites accused of copyright infringement. While marked sites may not be pulled off the results altogether, they're likely to be bumped down.
Here's Google's rather evasive description of the change:
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. 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.
The company goes on to reassure site owners that they'll have options if wrongfully targeted. "We won't be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner. And we'll continue to provide 'counter-notice' tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated," the company says.
Still, it looks like the new scheme will follow the adage of "shoot first, ask questions later." Considering how over-zealous copyright censors have proven to be time and again, site owners—especially folks who run loosely moderated, community-driven operations—may find themselves holding the short end of the stick. Down-ranking or removal from Google results pages could cut traffic, curb income, and threaten their very survival.
Meanwhile, YouTube is packed to the brim with copyrighted content that, for whatever reason, managed to slip through the cracks—and it probably collects massive quantities of copyright removal notices. Will Google start to rank down its own video sharing service? I very much doubt it.