Google announced over the weekend that it would change the way it displays search results, giving less prominence to sites which are repeatedly the subject of complaints by copyright holders. While that produced some anguished howls from the internet community, claims the move represents censorship or the death of torrenting are fundamentally wrong-headed.
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. 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 . . . 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. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.
When Google tweaks, the world freaks. Every site that relies on Google searches to drive traffic is sensitive to changes in how that traffic is directed. But it's quite hard to have sympathy for a site giving away content that isn't its own suddenly appearing lower in the rankings. Let's take a quick reality check:
Reality check #1: This isn't censorship. Despite what some US Gizmodo writers might claim, this isn't censorship. Google isn't blocking the sites, and it isn't removing links to them altogether. It's simply using the number of complaints as one of the factors when weighting the order of search results. Guess what? Google does that all the time.
Reality check #2: Google chooses how results are displayed, but you choose what to search for. If your search terms are specific enough, you'll get to the site or content you want. If you choose to search the results from a specific site using Google, you'll get exactly what you want. If you look hard enough, you'll find it. If you're expecting Google to make life easier for you all the time, think again.
Reality check #3: Dedicated torrent seekers won't give a damn. Anything which you can find with a single search can also be found by the copyright owners with a single search. As such, issuing takedown requests and copyright complaints is easy. Meanwhile, anyone who is a heavy torrent user will be relying on dedicated search sites, Usenet or other resources. As such, Google doing this won't make a massive difference, other than making Google look more serious about copyright enforcement. And that's an understandable stance for a listed company, whatever your own individual behaviour is.