That Google knows every detail of what its users search for is no secret – after all, the company itself processes all of the requests.
Armed with this data, Google publishes its annual ‘Year in Search‘ report, the latest of which appeared yesterday. From our perspective, there were very few – if any – piracy-related aspects to report, something which should be encouraging to rightsholders.
However, after the BBC published its take on Google’s UK search statistics, noting that several questions in the “How to” category were directed at how to watch sports events and TV shows, the Federation Against Copyright Theft took to Twitter to issue a warning.
“Whether it’s a re-stream on social media, a piracy site, or using a TV-connected device, avoiding official providers to access content is illegal,” FACT wrote, linking to the BBC article.
Of course, it is FACT’s job to draw attention to such things but we wondered, given that Google is quite specific about the top titles searched for in 2019, whether Google’s search results were worthy of particular panic. Or, indeed, whether “where to watch” searches should always be considered dangerous and piracy related. But first, some background.
Over the past several years, copyright holders and anti-piracy groups have regularly complained that Google and other search engines help people find content online in a way that prioritizes pirated over legitimate content.
That isn’t the company’s intention, of course, but there have been numerous instances of pirate sites appearing higher in searches than those offering licensed content. In the UK, Google and various industry players agreed to tackle this and similar issues with the signing of a voluntary anti-piracy agreement back in 2017.
So, when placed alongside these top “how to” searches, has it worked?
#1: How to watch Champions League Final
This search clearly related to the match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool from which the latter emerged victorious, two goals to nil. However, the related Google search is particularly interesting since all of the top results showed users how to watch the match for free.
While that might sound like a cause for concern, these results linked exclusively to completely legal streams offered via established broadcasters. Clearly, the incentive to pirate had been mostly eliminated by giving consumers what they want.
#2: How to watch Game of Thrones
As one of the most popular shows in living memory, it’s no surprise that Game of Thrones appears in Google’s top search lists for the UK. In past years, this kind of search would’ve likely displayed ‘pirate’ results prominently but that is no longer the case. In our tests we had to go through several pages of Google results with links to either buy the show or articles detailing how to watch the show legally first. Pirate results were not prominent.
#5: How to watch KSI vs. Logan
Given the controversy surrounding this pair of YouTube celebrities, searches on how to watch the fight were bound to score highly. However, a search for the fight yet again yielded pages and pages of legitimate sources or articles detailing how to access the bout legally.
#10: How to watch Chernobyl
The results displayed following a “where to watch Chernobyl” search are very similar to those that are returned following a similar Game of Thrones query. One has to skip through pages and pages of legitimate results to find any pirate sources and, on the way, the emphasis to go legal is clear.
The legal choices, as they appear in Google’s results, are as follows: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon, NowTV, HBO, Sky, Hulu, iTunes, Showmax, DirectTV, HBONordic, HBOGo, and Verizon. Admittedly, not all of those are available to UK users, but that’s four pages deep into the results and not one pirate link in sight.
While this is a very limited sample, there does appear to have been a notable change in the way that Google displays its results in the UK when faced with a basic query of “where to watch X”. There is now a pretty clear bias towards legitimate sources in results presented in the first few pages.
Of course, those that wish to refine their searches to actively seek out pirated content will have more immediate success, that’s the way searches work. However, it’s now more difficult to argue that users will be diverted to pirated sources when they’re seeking out legal options, at least for the samples listed above.
It’s worth noting, however, that pirate users’ viewing habits are probably shifting. There is now less reliance on search engines and more emphasis on apps and tools that are designed to produce infringing results by default, which is the exact opposite of what Google offers in respect of the above.