Business News Digital Labels & Publishers Legal Top Stories

RIAA calls for Google to do more to demote illegal sites in search

By | Published on Friday 22 February 2013


“Must try harder” remains the music industry’s mantra with regards Google’s efforts to assist in the fight against online piracy, with key trade bodies still of the opinion the web giant is better at talking about anti-piracy efforts that actually delivering.

The latest trade body to speak on the matter is the good old Recording Industry Association Of America, which has just published a report analysing the impact of an announcement last summer by Google that it would downgrade sites in its search results if it received large numbers of valid copyright infringement claims against them. The impact of that move, the RIAA says, is negligible.

Last August Google’s Senior VP of Engineering Amit Singhal announced that: “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. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily – whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify”.

But that commitment – and algorithm tweak – has had no real effect, says the RIAA. In its new report the trade body observes: “Over a six month period, Google received notices for tens of millions of copyright removal requests concerning various sites, including multiple repeat notices of infringement of the same content on the same site. [But] the sites we analysed, all of which were serial infringers per Google’s Copyright Transparency Report, were not demoted in any significant way in the search results and still managed to appear on page one of the search results over 98% of the time in the searches conducted; in fact, these sites consistently showed up in three to five of the top ten search results”.

The music industry has a love/hate relationship with Google of course. While the Google Play download store and cloud locker is a relatively small player in the digital music market, YouTube is now an important revenue stream for most rights owners, especially the bigger labels, and is currently a key partner in Sony and Universal’s own digital content business VEVO. And on the YouTube side, Google has arguably gone further than any other company in helping rights owners control the distribution and use of their content online.

Google also insists it is trying to crack down on the use of its ad networks and payment services by websites that primarily exist to enable piracy, joining in with a wider campaign by the likes of the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry and the big credit card firms to cut off the revenue streams of compulsive copyright infringers. In a report co-authored with PRS For Music last year Google positioned this as the most important element of the fight against piracy, and earlier this week the Telegraph reported plans at the web giant to step up its activity in this domain.

But for the record industry the biggest issue remains the one Google has generally been least willing to act on – the fact that when you search for big artists on the firm’s search engine (especially if you follow the artist’s name with the word ‘download’ or ‘free’), unlicensed sources of content appear high up in the results list, sometimes higher than any of the legit sources. The web firm has made various commitments to tackle this issue in recent years, though at the same time more quietly muses that part of the problem is that the pirates are often just better at search engine optimisation than the labels and legal music platforms. But either way, it remains at the top of the record industry’s piracy gripe list.

Commenting on his organisation’s analysis of the impact of last year’s Google algorithm change, the RIAA’s EVP Steven M Marks told CMU: “We recognise and appreciate that Google has undertaken some positive steps to address links to illegal music on its network. Unfortunately, our initial analysis concludes that so far Google’s pledge six months ago to demote pirate sites remains unfulfilled. Searches for popular music continue to yield results that emphasise illegal sites at the expense of legitimate services, which are often relegated to later pages. And Google’s auto-complete function continues to lead users to many of those same illicit sites”.

He continued: “The range and number of licensed services embraced by the music business and available to fans today is staggering. We want fans to easily and quickly find the services that are safe, secure and reward the artists that create the music we all love. Research shows that users trust search engines like Google to lead them to legitimate sites when searching for music, yet Google’s demotion programme is not working. We encourage Google to immediately make the necessary changes so its pledge becomes a reality, and we stand ready to work with Google in that endeavour”.