Search Engines

Report: Google sends little traffic to pirate sites

August 6, 2013: 9:21 AM ET

A report by the Computer and Communications Industry Association says Google and other search engines make for easy targets, but most people go to pirate sites on their own.

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FORTUNE -- Here's something that just about all of us other than the copyright lobby and certain policymakers already know: People looking for pirated content don't often use search engines to find it.

The copyright industries have long targeted Google (GOOG) and other search engines for directing people to illicit copies of movies and music. But that's not because search engines do a lot of the directing, it's because they make for an easy target, according to a new report titled "The Search Fixation: Infringement, Search Results, and Online Content" by Matt Schruers of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a group that advocates for open systems and fair competition. (Update: the CCIA, it should be noted, counts Google, Facebook, and other interested parties among its members.)

The report targets in particular a "report card" issued in February by the Recording Industry Association of America that pinned blame for the piracy problem on Google. Six months after Google pledged to tweak its search algorithm to put sites that received a lot of DMCA takedown notices lower in its results, the RIAA declared that there was "no evidence that Google's policy has had a demonstrable impact on demoting sites with large amounts of piracy," the RIAA wrote in its report card. "These sites consistently appear at the top of Google's search results for popular songs or artists."

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Even if that's the case (which is dubious to begin with), it doesn't mean that many people are using Google to find pirated songs. The CCIA's report indicates that only about 8% of traffic to sites offering pirated material comes via Google. And of that, about one in five searches include the name of a pirate site alongside the song or artist, meaning those users had a particular destination in mind before they ran the search.

Sites like Pirate Bay and isoHunt have repeatedly said they don't get much traffic from search engines. IsoHunt says it's less than 25% and has claimed it would survive even if it got no traffic from search.

Those numbers don't tell the whole story. At least some and probably a good number of people first learn of particular pirate sites via search engines. Once they know about them, they go there directly. But that doesn't come anywhere close to making Google responsible for piracy. The report indicates that, in recent years, anyway, most people direct themselves to pirate sites, or are directed there through social media.

"Search results may receive disproportionate attention, however, because they are easily tested," notes the CCIA report. It's impossible to track all the various ways people discover and get to pirate sites, but it's easy to point to the results of a Google search and say: "See? Piracy!"

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