One of the hottest piracy-related topics in recent times is the role search engines play in the discovery of unauthorized copyrighted material.
Rightsholders in their thousands have already sent Google more than 100 million DMCA takedown notices this year in the belief that removing search engine listings will go a long way towards making illicit content harder to find. But is that really the case?
According to a new research paper titled ‘The Search Fixation: Infringement, Search Results, and Online Content’, the emphasis rightsholders are placing on censoring search engine results is actually achieving very little and those valuable resources might be better off spent elsewhere.
The paper, published by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) which counts Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook among its members, says that entertainment industry companies have become “fixated” on the role search engines play in unearthing illicit content. The focus is so great there was even an attempt to legislate site censorship via the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act.
“This might lead to the conclusion that search engines are a prominent tool in the infringers’ tool box. In fact, available evidence suggests that search is not a particularly relevant tool for infringers seeking to find sites (such as The Pirate Bay) or for sites to find users,” the report states.
The CCIA cites research from BAE Systems Detica which found that users are far more likely to return to infringing sites via a direct browser entry or via social networks. Furthermore, it appears that users looking for illicit material already know where they want to obtain it from even before they start searching.
“As of August 2013, over 20% of queries that result in traffic being directed to the Pirate Bay consist of words compromising the Pirate Bay’s domain name. This suggests that users are quite aware of their intended destination before they arrive at a search engine, and that any facilitation was minimal,” CCIA explain.
When criticizing Google over its search results the RIAA has previously noted that searches including the terms “download,” “mp3,” or “torrent” often turn up links to infringing content.
However, in their report the CCIA says that such searches are infrequent when compared to straightforward lookups on artist names, which are actually more likely to turn up links to authorized content. So why not improve the usefulness of those?
“The fixation on demoting responsive but undesirable search results overlooks a more viable strategy: promoting desirable search results,” the paper notes.
CCIA suggests that if the entertainment industry wants their content to appear in search results when users type in “objectionable” terms such as those listed above, then they will have to start using them on pages offering legal content. Noting that legitimate sites aren’t currently employing such a strategy, the CCIA comes to two conclusions.
“This suggests either (a) a deficiency in otherwise robust online marketing strategies, or (b) that these terms are judged to be unworthy of optimizing because they will drive a trivial amount of commercial traffic.
“Stated otherwise: if search terms such as ‘mp3’ and ‘download’ were likely to lead to sales or subscriptions, a rational, profit-minded online platform engaging in basic search engine optimization (SEO) would attempt to incorporate those terms in site content.”
The CCIA concludes by noting that while DMCA notices might be a useful tool, they are unlikely to achieve the desired result of substantially reducing piracy. Concentrating on improving the visibility of legitimate content, even if that means utilizing “objectionable” terms, would be a more robust strategy.