On Friday morning, Google blogged that they were beginning to incorporate a new signal in their search ranking algorithm, that took into account the numbers of valid copyright removal (e.g. DMCA) notices received for sites.
This signal reportedly could impact search results rankings by lowering the rankings of such sites (notably, not "vanishing" the sites from search results).
Immediately, the Net lit up with anguished and angry diatribes claiming that Google had "caved in" to the RIAA and MPAA -- both of whom were apparently at least grudgingly pleased by the announcement. Bloggers wondered if competitors could use false DMCA notices to push down their competitors' rankings, or if the RIAA and MPAA themselves would attempt to leverage this system to blow away material that wasn't even actually infringing.
Then people started speculating about whether this meant that popular sites -- possibly including Google's YouTube itself -- would be impacted by this "piracy demotion" factor.
Unless you seriously believe that the Google Search Quality folks are idiots -- and trust me, they're not! -- it should be obvious that the overwhelming majority of this panicked reaction has been hysterical and unrealistic.
The original statement from Google was clear (and later info made this even more definitive) that valid copyright takedowns were but one signal among the hundreds used by the ranking algorithm. All manner of other factors, including overall site reputations, come into play in these decisions.
So in reality, the only sites likely to be affected by this new signal are ones where most of their content attracts DMCA takedowns -- that is, sites pretty much devoted to such materials. And let's be honest with ourselves, most of us know those sites when we see them -- they're generally pretty explicit about what they're doing!
Even for those sites, the change can only possibly lower their rankings. That means that if instead of searching for:
someone instead searched for:
the results would likely be pretty much exactly what you'd expect.
Some observers have bemoaned that this change by Google supposedly doesn't benefit Google users.
Yet it is difficult to realistically argue that it does not serve users for legal and legitimate content links to have at least some degree of priority over "illicit" ones, not only on an ethical basis, but also given the various sometimes serious hassles that can afflict users who frequent sites that specialize in the latter.
Is there any potential for abuse or "gaming" of this new signal in unfair ways? There are probably issues that will be discovered as this change rolls out, but I would expect Google to deal with them promptly. It's in everyone's interest for them to do so, including their own.
And my gut feeling is that we'll all discover that the impact of this change on sites that aren't focused on explicitly illicit content will ultimately be negligible, and that the hue and cry over this issue has been very much the result of misunderstandings, false assumptions, and perhaps more than a little grandstanding in some quarters.
We shall see.