Google, Search Ranking, and the Fight Against Piracy


Last month, Rahul Telang and I blogged about research we conducted with Liron Sivan where we used a field experiment to analyze how the position of pirate links in search results impact consumer behavior. Given this research, we were very interested in Google’s announcement last Friday that they were changing their ranking algorithm to make pirate links harder to find in search results.

According to the announcement, Google changed their ranking algorithm to more aggressively demote links from sites that receive a large number of valid DMCA notices, and to make legal links more prominent in search results. The hope is that these changes will move links from many “notorious” pirate sites off the first page of Google’s search results and will make legal content easier to find.

One might ask whether these changes — moving pirate results from the first to the second page of search results and promoting legal results — could have any effect on user behavior. According to our experimental results, the answer seems to be “yes, they can.”

Specifically, in our experiment we gave users the task of finding a movie of their choosing online. We then randomly assigned users to a control group and to two treatment groups: one where pirate links were removed from the first page of search results and where legal links were highlighted (legal treatment), and one where legal links were removed from the first page of search results (piracy treatment).

Our results show that users are much more likely to purchase legally in the legal treatment condition than in the control. We also found that these results hold even among users who initially search using terms related to piracy (e.g., by including the terms “torrent” or “free” in their search, or by including the name of well-known pirate sites), suggesting that even users with a predisposition to pirate can be persuaded to purchase legally through small changes in search results.

Given our findings, reducing the prominence of pirated links and highlighting legal links seems like a very promising and productive decision by Google. While it remains to be seen just how dramatically Google’s new search algorithm will reduce the prominence of pirate links, we are hopeful that Google’s efforts to fight piracy will usher in a new era of cooperation with the creative industries to improve how consumers discover movies and other copyrighted content, and to encourage users to consume this content through legal channels instead of through theft. If implemented well, both Google and studios stand to benefit significantly from such a partnership.