Copyright Removal Notices Now a Ranking Signal

on under Search Engine Optimization.

On August 10th, Google quietly announced that its algorithm would be updated to consider copyright removal notices as a ranking signal. While Google will not deindex sites that have received these notices without a court order, you can now expect your site to drop in the results if copyright complaints are filed against you.

This update has some important implications for SEOs, not to mention the internet as a whole. Here are a few concerns.

  • Copyright removal notices could become a way for competitors to hurt your rankings
  • What constitutes copyright violation is murky, and virtually any site can be accused
  • User generated content can violate copyright
  • Embeds are considered links, not copyright violation, unless...they are considered copyright violation
  • Google has an (unfair?) advantage in the search results because their placements reside outside of the traditional algorithm
  • Copyright owners may opt to notify Google without bothering to send you a takedown notice

When SearchEngineLand contacted Google regarding the update, they were given a bit more information, which they paraphrased:

Google told me today that the new penalty will look beyond just the number of notices...with the end result that YouTube -- as well as other popular sites beyond YouTube -- aren't expected to be hit.

What other sites? Examples Google gave me include Facebook, IMDB, Tumblr and Twitter...Google says the algorithm automatically assesses various factors or signals to decide if a site with a high number of copyright infringement notices against it should also face a penalty.

Google claims that the algorithm will affect its own sites in the same way that it affects others. However, it's important to realize that this only applies to traditional search results, and won't be related to "universal search" placements like Google Books, Videos, Google+, etc.

What Signals?

How is Google determining whether or not a site should be hurt by copyright notices? Clearly, the search engine won't tell us, and the change hasn't been around long enough to analyze any data. However, we can expect some of the following to play a part:

Age of Site - The newer a site is, the more likely it is run by a "pirate" who continuously needs to start over, or by somebody who isn't versed in copyright law.

Duplicate Content - If two pages have the same content, and one of them is often receiving takedown notices, we can expect that one to drop in the rankings.

Traditional Ranking Factors - Primarily links, but also social sharing, time on site, referrals, searches for the site name, etc. While these have nothing to do directly with copyright, Google tends to err on the side of protecting established sites.

Regarding that last point, by Google's own admission, "This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily." In other words, the primary reason for this update isn't to punish sites for violating copyright law, but to improve the user experience by eliminating sites that users are unlikely to enjoy.

To make this abundantly clear, a search for "torrents" still returns Pirate Bay in the search results (among other sites where pirated content is easily found).

What to Do About it

At this point, it looks like sites that have their SEO and marketing in order shouldn't have to worry too much about this particular update. However, there are certainly some extra things you can do to reduce the risk:

  • Use creative commons images when you aren't paying for images or making them yourself
  • Make it simple, easy, and quick for copyright owners to send you a takedown notice so that they are less likely to turn to Google
  • Do not reproduce large blocks of text or full size images on your site, and always link back to the original source
  • Moderate comments to remove all infringing material, and encourage linking rather than copying content
  • Avoid business models that rely on the copyrighted works of others

That last one may be a bit trickier than you might think. Where do you draw the line between a site like Reddit, whose business model is to allow users to share links from around the web, and Pirate Bay, whose business model is to allow users to share files of all types? And what about Facebook, where users are constantly posting images and copying text that often belongs to others?

Clearly, this update won't hurt these types of sites, but can we expect it to impact sites like them in the future? Especially new sites? It's a question worth pondering for the future of your business.

Inevitably, we can expect some startups and smaller sites to be unfairly affected by this update. Our advice to them, other than what's given above, is essentially the same advice we gave after the Penguin Update. A well organized link bait campaign, especially one that targets relatively non-commercial search terms, is usually the best way out of an algorithmic penalty.

It's also worth considering filing a counter-notice to Google, although by no means should your efforts stop there.

How else might this and future updates affect the SEO profession? What else can you do to protect yourself from negative copyright signals?

Image credit: MikeBlogs

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