In the past month or so there has been some buzz about Piracy in SERPs. More specifically, piracy sites that rank highly in SERPs. It’s an interesting topic and there’s a fair amount of solid information and opinion out there about it. To get caught up, there’s a great post by Danny Goodwin at Search Engine Watch on Censorship and Piracy. At the heart of the debate are two issues:
1. Piracy is illegal and should be punished, but to what extent?
2. Can the government force search engines to censor results and is that a good idea?
I’m going to weigh in on each but first I think it’s important to understand my stance on piracy. I’m against it. Period. I didn’t always have this opinion however. I was a high school senior when Napster went live. Believe it or not, in 1999 very few of my friends cared about the Internet, social networking was still getting together (in person) with friends, and I had honestly never heard of broadband. Even still, the lure of free music, downloaded a half hour at a time on my 28.8kbps modem (later upgraded to 56k), kept me up at night…all night. I couldn’t open my music factory during the day because every time the phone rang I’d get kicked off the web. See, kids (and the vast majority of adults) didn’t have cell phones either, so the phone rang a lot and my frustration would grow. I remember visiting friends at colleges that year and, while walking the floors of their T1 equipped dorms, it was clear that popularity was gained by having a computer, which gave instant access to any song of desire. CD’s were being burned by the minute and I loved every second of it.
My opinion only changed after I enrolled in school to study recording arts. It was preached to us that, if we wanted to work in the recording industry, stealing music was taking our income, our jobs, and our souls. While many people don’t agree with this, it is partially true. There isn’t as much opportunity in the recording industry as there once was and piracy did play a role in that among many other factors. I don’t work in the recording industry but many of my friends and former classmates do, so I continue to make it a point to buy my media. You won’t find a burned CD or DVD in my home.
So with the understanding that I’m against piracy; here is my opinion on point one from above. If it becomes a felony to pirate music then I would have been a felon for many years. I understand that now but I didn’t then and therefore, I’m not cool with it. You make mistakes when you are young, it’s part of growing up. Plus, where do you start the arrests? I mean, it’s no different than cheating on your taxes, everyone knows you don’t do it but yet many people still do. People are prosecuted for it every day but has it stopped anyone? A few high profile piracy cases aren’t going to stop piracy. The government knows that, the studios know that, and everyone who is stealing or providing the medium to steal media knows it too. I don’t think the answer is to punish end users with high crimes. I think it’s unfortunate that p2p networks are able to get away with it. I’m in the school of thought that feels the medium is the problem. If you can’t easily transact stolen media, you can’t easily steal the media right? I’m not here to solve the punishment issue but I will say that felonies for a 99-cent music track are not the answer.
The second issue is more involved. From an SEO standpoint, this can be broken out a little further. First, honest people are upset that piracy sites are outranking them and they want retribution. Here’s my answer to that: relevancy is still king. If there are more people searching for and linking to a torrent of a movie than there are people searching to know the leading actress of that movie, Google’s algorithm is correct in serving the results for the torrent. Just because your site is honest doesn’t mean it should be popular. Google’s job is to provide us with relevant results and some times those results are going to be piracy sites. Do I like it? No. But that leads me to the second half of this topic, censorship.
I believe strongly that the government should not step in here. I would like to see a shift in media related results but I think that decision should be left to the search engines to decide. I think it would be interesting if these decisions are made. For example, what if Google decides to axe piracy sites from their SERPs but Bing keeps them in? Will there be this huge shift in searches from Google to Bing? Will Bing follow suit or take a different stance? There are 185 million searches on Google for “torrent” each month according to their keyword tool. That’s not a small amount of traffic. This is going to be a hard decision but my point is, leave it up to the engines to make it. If they alienate a part of their customer base then it’s their decision.
I think it’s an interesting topic and that the implications of the decisions made surrounding it will reach beyond what we’re discussing here. Yes, I do think something needs to change but I don’t have the answers. What do you think?
Robert is an Account Executive at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.