Online piracy will always be a complex and turbulent issue for webmasters, businesses, journalists and politicians alike. Just because the stealing is done in a digital format rather than a more tangible theft does not mean that it does not have a real world impact. Regardless of your politics on the matter, it’s obvious that one of the many responsibilities of Google is to curb the accessibility of pirated content within their search results. They can achieve this not only by removing such content through the appropriate legal channels, but also by reducing the influence of such content within their own system. Enter the Pirate Update: Google’s algorithmic answer to piracy concerns.

How does the update work?

Put simply, the Pirate Update works to penalise sites with numerous copyright infringement notices – a kind of piracy allegation commonly known as a ‘takedown request’. Takedown requests are issued to Google by complainants who believe that their material has been stolen and wish for it to be removed from Google’s results pages. Such requests are submitted straight to Google on an individual basis, and they must fully identify both the original and infringing materials, sufficient proof that the complainant is the original copyright holder, and a statement of good faith that the material hasn’t been authorised by the infringing party. It’s important to remember that Google isn’t responsible for mediating these disputes as much as they are acting on them in a way that is compliant with the law. If a takedown notice is found to be valid, then Google will remove the infringing page from their search results.

What the Pirate Update does is prevent domains that have received a suspicious number of takedown requests from ranking well in SERPs. This means that the amount of takedown notices pinned to a particular domain works as a ranking signal just like any other – the more notices a site has to its name, the less likely it is to be rewarded in Google’s search results. As well as making piracy harder for offending websites, the update attempted to make piracy less tempting for users, introducing ads at the top of results pages that offer legitimate alternatives to users searching for free online content.

The update was rolled out in August 2012 in response to the sheer amount of pirated material showing up in search results, and growing pressure from a number of vested industries for Google to filter out such material. Hollywood executives in particular took issue with Google’s handling of their property being stolen en masse, claiming that the search engine was being too soft on piracy. The update itself, therefore, is as much a service to copyright holders as it is a statement to online pirates: a statement that Google are serious about piracy, and they’re not afraid to crack down on violations. In this sense, we can see online pirates are simply another addition to Google’s list of offenders, along with the likes of link networks, spammy keyword stuffers and content spinners.

Google vs the pirates

Just to be clear, Google were attacking piracy in a very roundabout way since long before this update, but they were only doing so by removing individual pages as opposed to penalising entire websites in search. This is an important difference!

Before the update, takedown requests only affected individual pages on a site. If you accused a website of stealing your content, and Google then judged this to be a valid case of copyright infringement, they would only take down the page on which your stolen content featured. With this old system, offending sites could continually reoffend without their rankings being affected. After the update, however, several takedown requests on individual pages started affecting all the pages across the entire website. This means that a site’s track record with copyright infringement acts as an indication of that site’s overall quality, influencing its ranking in search engine results.

Can the Pirate Update hurt my website?

Google has claimed that the signal instated by Pirate influences rankings on the basis of the total number of removal notices pinned to a particular domain. However, many people have questioned the use of takedown requests as ranking signals, not least because they are able to plunge sites into the untouched depths of results pages regardless of whether or not they’re actually valid. If we are to assume that takedown requests have no weight until proven valid, then why should mere accusations of copyright infringement stand as a measure of a site’s overall value? In 2016, researchers at Columbia University found that “4.2 percent of takedown requests targeted websites that failed to include infringing content specified in the DMCA notice.” This means that it is possible for websites to be penalised simply for being accused of copyright infringement!

Still, if your website (hopefully) doesn’t condone piracy or indulge in regular copyright infringement, there’s no need to panic about the Pirate Update. It’s important to keep in mind, amidst the usual panic from SEOs, that Google’s changes in this instance were geared more towards tackling big offenders such as torrent sites and streaming sites, not regular businesses. Perhaps they were simply accepting that the forceful removal of infringing websites through individual takedowns is too difficult and lengthy a task, and that a quick algorithmic workaround would go a long way to cleaning up the SERPs.