Google Ranking Drop Because of DMCA Complaints

Google has probably made more significant changes to the methodology it uses to rank sites in its search engine in the last two years than it has in the previous decade. The latest change ties into a copyright issue and sites are seeing their Google ranking drop because of DMCA complaints.

DMCA

“DMCA” refers to Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Act is a federal law designed to address copyright issues online. It is perhaps the single most misunderstood law related to the web.

In passing the DMCA, Congress tried to create a law to help copyright owners protect their intellectual property rights while also accounting for the need for online operators to avoid an avalanche of lawsuits. These dual goals are accomplished by granting sites immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits so long as they comply with the law by issuing a copyright policy, designating a DMCA agent and so on. Said compliance usually results in the removal of the allegedly offending content from the site.

Search Engines

Discussions of the DMCA tend to center on sites allowing user-generated content. Indeed, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could not exist without this law being in place as they would face thousands of new lawsuits on a daily basis.

The DMCA does not apply just to websites. It applies to other digital properties such as apps and search engines Why is this worth mentioning? Well, Google is not only complying with the law; but also taking things a step further.

Google

Google controls a bit less than 70 percent of the total searches conducted online.  For most online businesses, getting rankings on Google is critical to their long-term success. As a result, people pay very close attention to the changes Google makes to its ranking methodology.

Google recently made a rather stunning announcement:

We aim to provide a great experience for our users and have developed over 200 signals to ensure our search algorithms deliver the best possible results. 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.

This statement is essentially saying Google is now considering DMCA complaints as part of the ranking process. Put another way, your Google rankings could fall if Google receives multiple copyright infringement complaints about your site and you do not fight those claims.

The Good

In many ways, this new approach is a positive development. It could put the practice of scraping content out of business. Scrapers are programs seeking out content on the web for particular keywords. When a scraping program finds the content, it copies it and republishes it on another site. Scraping is blatant copyright infringement and extremely annoying to the owners of platforms producing original content. If people start filing DMCA complaints with Google regarding these sites, the offending sites will drop in the rankings. This fall could put an end to the practice or significantly limit it.

The Bad

There are definite risks for Google in looking at DMCA complaints as part of the ranking process. The problem involves an inherent weakness of the DMCA. Specifically, the site receiving the complaint is not required to analyze any DMCA complaint. When they receive it, they just must take down the content to retain their immunity from copyright infringement liability.

As you can imagine, this weakness is subject to abuse. If you outrank my site, I could arguably start filing DMCA complaint after complaint with Google regarding your site. You could then respond, but do you really want to get into a legal battle with a lawyer? It will cost you plenty while costing me nothing.

In the real world, large companies have been known to take just this approach to protect their products and reputation. The file a massive number of DMCA complaints against individuals or small parties in the belief the party will not bother undertaking the expense and time to fight the claims. This is usually the case.

Could the same thing happen with ranking wars? It could. If people now know Google will look at the issue, why not file DMCA complaints? One has to think the engineers at the search engine have given this some serious thought. I believe this new ranking factor will only affect your rankings if Google receives a large number of complaints regarding your site.

Will your Google ranking drop because of DMCA complaints? Probably not unless you are scraping other sites or committing other blatant copyright infringement acts. If so, frankly, you deserve it.

Richard A. Chapo, Esq.