Google announced Friday that the search giant would "better prioritize legal content," making it more difficult for Internet users to find pirated content through the site.
The company bowed to pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, organizations who have repeatedly criticized Google for not doing enough to protect copyrighted content.
"Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site," Amit Singhal, senior vice president of engineering at Google wrote in a blog post published Friday. "Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results."
Google removes millions of direct links to copyrighted music, movies, television shows, and other content a month, but content creators have said removing content after the fact is a reactive move. The RIAA, British Record Industry, and NBC Universal are among the organizations who make the most takedown requests. The search giant has stepped up its efforts in recent months, removing more than a million links to copyrighted material per week in early July, compared to around 300,000 per week in January.
Internet experts say the new move is a poor compromise. It won't make sites that host copyrighted content impossible to find, and the full impacts of the change won't be known until it's live for about a month, according to Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology.
"What they're trying to do here is step up its [policing] in the face of a lot of pressure from the content industry to do more," Harris says, calling it a "reasonably lightweight approach" to combat piracy.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn't see the move as lightweight. The Internet-freedom group called the move "opaque" and worries that it could "[drop] lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results without recourse for the speakers."
"Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement. No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid," the EFF wrote on its website.
The move is also likely to anger advocates of a free and open Web, the segment of the Internet that effectively pushed dozens of sites to go black in January in protest of intellectual property laws introduced in Congress. The SOPA and PIPA laws would have put a stranglehold on websites illegally using content, but Internet leaders worried the laws would lead to censorship.
Harris of CDT also says the change could have serious impacts for sites that rely heavily on user-generated content such as message boards, social networks, and sites with large comment sections.
"There could be unintended consequences—it could possibly deprioritize sites that rely on user-generated content because they're so big and so many [takedown] orders go through them," she says. "I think there's all kinds of ways it can be gamed on both sides. Google has to be very vigilant" about not unfairly punishing legal sites, she added.
Though the MPAA lauded the move in a press release, spokesman Howard Gantman, says the copyright industry will have to wait to see how it plays out.
"Filmmakers, creators throughout the world have been urging this for a long time," he says, saying it was unclear how much the change will affect the search algorithm. "The devil is in the details."
Google makes over 500 minor tweaks to its search algorithm per year, and about 25 "major changes" per year. The company rarely announces the changes.
Representatives from several websites likely to be affected by the change didn't immediately respond to request for comment.
Harris says the move won't make piracy go away, but it might give rise to sites that are able to game Google's new algorithm.
"If you block a site today, pirates will go to a different site tomorrow," Harris says.
In a New York Times op-ed posted earlier this week, tech reporter Nick Bilton wrote that Internet pirates will always win.
"Stopping online piracy is like playing the world's largest game of Whac-A-Mole," he wrote.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com