If you woke up to drastically different search rankings this morning, you could be a victim of Google’s latest algorithm change. While it doesn’t have a cute, cuddly nickname (like “Panda” or “Penguin”), Google is taking it just as seriously as some of the other major changes we’ve seen over the past couple of years.

As of now, Google is using copyright infringement as a factor in its algorithm. Specifically, websites that have a number of valid copyright removal notices filed against them will see a drop in their rankings.

On the surface, this seems like a great idea. After all, Google has made it clear that it wants to see sites with quality content — but that doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with stealing quality content from someone else!

I’m all for punishing content thieves. I hate the thought of someone else stealing my creativity and my hard work and benefiting from it. Unfortunately, though, once you start digging into Google’s newest algorithm change, you actually wind up with more questions than answers. Even if you’re doing everything legally and ethically, some of these questions will make you awfully nervous:

1. What is “Valid”?

Just because someone files a copyright infringement complaint doesn’t prove that anyone has actually stolen anything. It’s like going over to your local police department and filing a report because your purse was stolen. Even if you say Joe stole your purse, the police still have to gather evidence that proves Joe really did steal it. Then, Joe has to be convicted in order for the purse theft to show up on his record.

According to Google’s Senior Vice President of Engineering, Amit Singhal, the world’s largest search engine received 4.4 million copyright removal notices in July 2012. That’s more than they received during all of 2009! It’s an astounding number, but how many of those complaints were actually “valid”?

Unfortunately, we don’t know, because Google hasn’t said what makes something “valid.” They also haven’t said whether they’re going to step up their investigative efforts. All they’ve said is that they’ve come up with new penalties. It’s no different than if the police started convicting people based on the accusations made in a police report. There’s no due process. To me, that creates a slippery slope. What’s next?

2. What is Considered to be a “High Number”?

Singhal also said that websites with “high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.” Unfortunately, though, this is just as vague as the “valid” statement. How many copyright complaints do people have to file for you to actually lose your rankings? 10? 20? 100? 2?

3. Will This be the Newest Tool for Negative SEO-ers?

What’s to stop a shady competitor from filing a bunch of bogus copyright complaints against you? Is there any kind of tool in place to alert Google when an organization suddenly files a ton of complaints? What safeguards are in place to stop the people who will, undoubtedly, try to abuse the system?

4. How Do You Appeal?

If there’s anything that Panda and Penguin taught us, it’s that some of the “good guys” can get tangled up in the mess, simply by accident. So, what happens if all of the copyright complaints against you are bogus? After all, it’s not like you can call up Google headquarters and plead your case. Will there be any recourse for sites that see damage to their rankings?

5. Is This Nothing More Than “SOPA-lite”?

While this is merely an algorithm change — instead of being federal law, like SOPA was supposed to be — the result is the same for website owners. If you get caught up in this change, it can ruin your business. It evokes many of the same fears in websites owners that SOPA did.

Ironically, Google was firmly against SOPA. In fact, there’s talk that this latest algorithm change is actually Google’s way of trying to make the folks in Hollywood happy. Remember, when Google stood up against SOPA, movie studios, music labels, and television companies were not happy about it.

Hopefully, this change comes with enough of a strategy in place to truly stop content thieves — and not just an attempt to make nice with Hollywood.

6. What’s the Point?

Google has had steps in place to remove copyright-breaching pages from its search results altogether for years. Personally, I’ve filed a number of DMCA notices against websites that have stolen my content. Once Google was able to prove that my copyright had indeed been violated, I received an email saying that the offending webpage was removed from the results and, in its place is now a link to ChillingEffects.org — explaining exactly why the page was no longer listed there.

To me, that’s a much harsher penalty than having lower rankings. So, do we really need this algorithm change at all? It seems to be a step backwards.

By Nicole Beckett (c) 2012