Study says SEO lapses by legit distributors are to blame for high ranking of pirate sites by search engines
What are we to make of the recently released study by the CCIA (a Washington D.C. tech industry lobbying group whose membership includes Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) that claims that search is not a popular path to discover pirated content online? The study asserts, “that search engines are not a major tool in the infringer’s toolbox.” Apparently the real reason it’s easy to find links to illegal content online is not the fault of search engines, but simply poor SEO techniques by legit content distributors.
This so-called “research paper” titled “The Search Fixation: Infringement, Search Results, and Online Content” was written by Matt Schruers, an adjunct law professor and CCIA’s VP for Law and Policy. Freudian notions aside, headlines the paper generated were predictable. With the exception of Torrent Freak, every tech-oriented blog seems to have fallen in line echoing the idea that poor, maligned search engines play only a minor role in helping folks find free stuff online.
In this tit for tat spin war, this paper was designed as a direct response to a recent RIAA study that criticized Google for not being proactive in demoting pirate search results despite promises to the contrary. According to the study:
The contention that disappearing undesirable entries from search results would substantially prevent piracy is flawed however. The solutions to online infringement have little to do with search. Infringing sites receive limited traffic from search. In the context of music, the available evidence suggest that the frequency with which users input queries like “download,” “mp3,” or “torrent” is relatively low…
…Concerns about organic search results containing terms such as “mp3” or “download” are misplaced, however. Actual search data indicates that appending “mp3” or “download” as the RIAA paper suggests is statistically uncommon. Users far more frequently search for “[artist]” or “[artist]””[track]”…Google Trends data indicate that only a small fraction of searches for the artist’s name and track name also included the words “mp3” or “download.”
As evidence for his conclusions he makes the point (using a fancy Google trends chart) by using the (very wealthy) recording artist Rihanna to bolster his argument.
Sure looks convincing right? Well, the thing is, this chart doesn’t really say much of anything besides the fact that folks searched for “Rihanna” a lot when she had a new song released and searched for “Rihanna” a lot more than “Rihanna diamonds mp3.” So what? No one suggested that searching for information about an artist was equivalent to searching for free downloads. The RIAA’s research never made that point.
By combining the multiple search terms into one search on using Google trends, Schruers gives us a graph that looks to mirror his claim. The problem is–what is he actually comparing? Examining “search interest” (which is what Google trends allows you to do) and making the leap that piracy isn’t a problem because more people happened to search using the term “Rihanna” rather than for a (free) mp3 of her popular song? Come again?
It’s not hard to assume that lots of folks search for Rihanna because they want to find out more about her, not just because they’re seeking free downloads to her song. It’s no surprise that Rihanna searches outnumber those for mp3 downloads. It’s really a case of apples and oranges.
More useful might be putting in various search terms one by one as I did. Note searched for “rihanna diamonds download” the related terms (circled in red) included “mp3 rihanna diamonds” and “diamonds mp3 download.”
(Note: I actually included the search box in my screen grab example for clarity’s sake):
Looking at these results one can postulate upon the release of “Diamonds” interest in searching for illegal download options spiked. Below is the Google trends chart for the search term “Rihanna” and an inset for 2012 results. Clearly over that period searches for Rihanna fluctuate for various reasons–whether it is a new album release or altercation with Chris Brown.
What about trends in searching for watching free movies online now that Netflix and other streaming services are available? The chart below indicates the point at which Netflix launched its streaming service in early 2007. It’s worth noting that its launch coincides with an increased trend in search for “free” movies online. Does this mean Netflix streaming influenced piracy? No, what’s likely is that the upward trend partly reflects the emergence of technology that enables efficient streaming (and direct downloads) of high-quality movies online–pirated or otherwise.
While search is not the cause of this trend BUT there’s no denying it makes finding free content online (pirated content) easier. If one limits search to the United States, the trend line seems to have been more consistent, probably due to the fact users here have had better access to the internet than many other parts of the developing world.
One other point worth noting is that searches for the word “torrent” have diminished, after a peak in 2010 the trend-line has moved steadily downward.
Here’s an animated look at this over time. While it’s good news that interest in torrents appears to be waning, I imagine it’s because there’s now a myriad of easier ways to watch pirated films online. Why bother with torrents when with one click you can watch or download a movie? Here’s an animated view of search trends for the term “torrent” since 2004.
So while search trends may change over time–whether working on a term paper or looking up cancer treatments, online search is usually the starting point–what’s wrong with pressuring Google et al to be more proactive in removing results linking to illegal music, movies or counterfeit goods? In his report Schruers argues for an alternative:
The inclusion of NARM-recommended text (“don’t torrent; buy [here] instead”) on the artist’s site would remedy this. Linking users to other lawful music services in addition to iTunes could be another way to contribute toward improving those services’ page rank. Similarly, Universal Music points to Rihanna’s official website, Twitter account, and Facebook page, but points to no commercial websites from which the artist’s music is available. Addressing this would also contribute toward improved page rank.
In a further effort to let search engines off the hook Schruers concludes his report with this:
While DMCA notices and DMCA compliance programs are one component promoting a robust digital marketplace, efforts to disappear search results are unlikely to mitigate online infringement, in large part due to the irrelevance of general-purpose search engines in the average infringer’s toolbox. A more robust strategy would entail licensors and their licensees focusing on strategic search engine optimization–including but not limited to ‘objectionable’ terms–so as to promote the page rank of lawful sites and increase the visibility of legitimate online content offerings.
So, if I’m to understand him, the real solution to this problem would be for all of use content creators–filmmakers, musicians, etc.–to employ better SEO keyword methodology, i.e. co-opt popular pirate search terms like “free mp3” or “watch movies online free” so that legit search results will trump those of the pirate sites. Well duh…we did just that long ago on the website for our film “And Then Came Lola.” Included among our SEO keywords are:
free, movie, lola movie, and then came lola, online, buy, watch, telecharger, portugués (brasileño) subtítulos,subtítulos en español,sottotitoli in italiano, lesbian, download, movie, film, romantic comedy, fast girl films, streaming,video on demand, vod, DVD, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, subtitles, مشاهدة فيلم مثليه,劳拉现身 , lezbiyen filmi, watch online, watch, free, putlocker, السينما للجميع
Doing so is a no brainer and-Rihanna aside–most indie filmmakers and musicians I know do just that AND also provide multiple links to legit content for their work….but despite such efforts, pirate sites can still dominate searches for “free” (illegal) content. Maybe we should just hire better web masters and SEO experts? For the record our film website’s home page includes both a list of worldwide links for purchase/watch the film, an iTunes app and embedded links in the text that include links to subtitles versions.
I took a look at various “objectionable” search terms via the Alexa website (note that it’s a subsidiary of Amazon) that provides data on web traffic and here’s what I discovered. Search for “watch free movies online” and you find this page.
Out of the first 9 results, only 2 appear to be legit sites (highlighted in yellow) are Crackle. and Hulu. The first result is for a site called “TubePlus” (pirate sites highlighted in green) which according to this story on itproportal.com is a “YouTube for pirates.”
Controversial file-sharing service Pirate Bay is openly supporting TubePlus, a revolutionary new hybrid video-sharing site that brings together content from BitTorrent sites, along with cyberlockers such as Megaupload and Hotfile, as well as P2P service eMule.
The newly launched site marks a big step into the mainstream for the traditionally geeky business of file-sharing.
Rather than finding and downloading files, users of TubePlus simply search for their favourite movies and TV programmes – and stream them directly into their browser using an interface that’s more than a little reminiscent of popular video-sharing site YouTube. There are even links to IMDb reviews of films and shows.
Another site (ranked at 945) is 1channel.ch, another notorious pirate website. Go there and you’ll find they’ve changed their name (yet again). At any rate, bottom line is that finding pirate sites is made possible in large part via web search.
Here’s another example using the search term “mp3” which demonstrates that pirate sites abound.
Also, for the record, using Rihanna’s approach to web promotion is not necessarily the best example as most people are well aware of who she is and where to find her music should they want to purchase it. Those who are that are really hurt by piracy are not the big stars with big bank accounts.
That brings us back full circle to the claim that “CCIA’s research paper indicates that search engines are not a major tool in the infringer’s toolbox.”
Sorry, but I read the entire paper and found no evidence to support this. Sure, lots of downloaders bypass search because they are experienced downloaders and know how to go to Pirate Bay or Filestube to find what they’re looking for, but where did they get their start? Perhaps it’s better to think of search engines like Google as a “gateway” to finding pirated content online.
Google search leads to illegal downloads, counterfeit products, illegal pharmacies and more. Clearly the search giant can de-list sites engaged in unlawful behavior (like child pornography) but rather than do so in this case, its proxy (the CIAA) gins up headlines to muddy the waters, deflect and obfuscate the real issues at play.
If Google were a brick and mortar mall featuring stores selling bootleg DVDs authorities would step in a force them to shut down the illegal enterprises, but when it comes to the online world the “tech” industry’s constant refrain is that the need to “innovate” trumps the need to do what’s right. Yet this debate isn’t really about protecting innovation, that’s simply tech-speak for protecting the industry’s bottom line (at the expense of those other innovators, content creators).
Last month I read another article by the same Matt Schruers titled “The Thing We Don’t Talk About in Piracy Estimates.” In it he noted, “some degree of infringement is not wealth destruction but rather wealth redistribution.” He went on to clarify:
Clearly, intellectual property is important to our economy — as is open competition, and the free exchange of ideas. These three forces are each valuable tools in the “innovation toolbox”, and allowing any one of them to be undermined – including intellectual property – may impair innovation, along with other important social goals. But as long as the empirical evidence around the policy conversation is so impoverished, we won’t be making well-informed decisions.
Schruer’s fondness for the term “toolbox” aside, I think he may want to take a look at his own use of “empirical evidence” to advance, or rather inhibit, meaningful conversations around web search and online piracy. This “free exchange of ideas” does not necessitate the “free” exchange of pirated content.