I've been thinking some more about Google's announcement last week that it will be filtering searches
based on how many DMCA notices a site gets. Google insists that this shouldn't hurt "legitimate" sites
, because the DMCA notices are only a one factor in determining how a site gets listed (and, thus, it says that sites that get a ton of DMCA notices, like Facebook, IMDB, Tumblr, Twitter and Youtube shouldn't be impacted). However, there are a few reasons why I think Google has made a mistake here.
- This is the first change to Google's rankings that isn't in the best interest of its users. Google has argued that these new changes will actually benefit users by pointing them to "better" results. That argument is effectively that sites that they are demoting in the rankings are akin to "spam" sites. But there's a very big difference here. Spam sites tend to be sites that the person doing the searching doesn't want and which clutter up the results. For content searches, the searches that Google will be demoting actually might be the ones that the consumer does want. Google has always been pretty religious about making sure the search results best matched what the searcher was, in fact, looking for. But it's now changing that policy. That seems like a dangerous step down a potentially very slippery slope.
- Admitting that it's willing to cave to the interests of businesses, rather than users, will lead to more such demands. Already, we've seen companies complain about how Google rankings work -- and Google could always point to the fact that it determined how to rank its results based on what was best for users. But that's no longer the case, as others can point to Google caving in this one instance. Expect other industries to start asking for special treatment here, too. Google can fend these requests off, but it's going to start to get a lot of them.
- It's never enough. The industry will always want more: As we've already discussed, the MPAA and RIAA aren't satisfied with this move, and will continue to pressure Google to do even more. Opening the door here won't mean that they'll suddenly be satisfied. It's just going to convince them to keep up what they'd been doing in the past: complaining to anyone and everyone that Google doesn't do enough.
- Google's defense in anti-trust cases just got that much more difficult: Google has always argued in the antitrust efforts against them, that the ratings results are the best for users, not for any particular business. But this new effort will be pointed out time and time again to show that's not always the case, as those on the other side of antitrust fights will start asking why the RIAA and MPAA get special treatment, but others can't.
- This will harm new innovations: As we noted above, Google claims this shouldn't hurt YouTube. But, imagine if Google had this in place years back, when YouTube was first starting out. It gets a bunch of DMCA notices early on, Google "filters" it down, and YouTube never becomes "YouTube" -- one of the most important tools that many artists today use for promoting, distributing and monetizing their works. Did it have lots of infringement early on? Hell yes. Did it develop new tools that tons of artists now find so valuable that they rely on them every day? Yes. Would that have happened if Google had demoted them early on? Probably not.
- This may hold back other search engines: This one Google might not mind. As the entertainment industry has done with things like Content ID, it will now argue that all other search engines, by default, should do the same thing -- even though most of them may not have the tools or the DMCA data to make this work effectively. In doing this, Google may end up burdening other search engines -- especially upstarts -- in the space. Google may not mind this, but historically Google has at least been a reasonably good neighbor in not actively trying to undermine competing search engines.
- This won't hold back infringement. At all. The underlying rationale for this is that the RIAA and MPAA think that people searching for content online are too stupid to realize the difference between a paid link and a free link. They think that if someone does a search on the name of a movie along with "free online," that if they're shown an authorized fee-based offer, they're willing to pay for it. There's little evidence to support that. The people doing such searches know exactly what they're looking for. The real problem is not that Google is showing it to them, it's that the traditional entertainment industry players aren't providing users what they want.
The end result of all of this is that this move seems likely to hurt everyone and help no one. It makes the entertainment industry marginally happier than they were, though still not satisfied. And, historically, when the entertainment industry gets what it wants, it usually means that what it needs
to actually help it move forward gets pushed further away. That seems likely here as well.