MPAA study discovers search engines are good at finding stuff online

Fall has come to Washington, Congress is back from its summer recess (at least until the House decides to shut down the government altogether), so it must be anti-piracy season, when the copyright industries and other IP-dependent businesses try to gin up interest on Capitol Hill for “doing something” about piracy and counterfeiting in its various forms.

The 2011 anti-piracy season was highlighted by SOPA and PIPA, which attracted broad support from lawmakers before that support collapsed amid a conflagration of public opposition. With the wreckage of those bills still smoldering and an election underway in 2012, last year was quiet on the anti-piracy front. But this year’s season is off to a fast start.

On Wednesday, the MPAA released a study conducted by Boston-based research and consulting firm Compete purporting to put a chunk of the blame for online piracy on Google and other search engines. In a press conference on Capitol Hill to unveil the study, MPAA CEO Chris Dodd called search engines a “major gateway” to online piracy, citing the study’s finding that nearly 20 percent of internet sessions in which consumers accessed infringing movie or TV content were “influenced” by search engines.

Consumers who access infringing content for the first time are twice as likely as repeat offenders to have used a search engine in their navigation path, according to the study.

Using clickstream panels of internet users in the U.S. (2 million) and the U.K. (200,000), Compete analyzed how often users visited known infringing URLs, how long they stayed there, and the path they took to the site. Overall, the study found that 40.5 percent of visits came from direct entry of the URL into a browser, 35.4 percent came from piracy linking sites, 19.2 percent came from search engines (82 percent of them from Google) and 4 percent of visits came from other sources.

Well..duh. People who knew where the content they were looking for was hosted went directly to those sites; those who didn’t searched for it. That’s what search engines are for. They’re no more a “gateway” to piracy then they are to any other content online. They’re where people who are looking for stuff start. It’s not really the fault of the search engine if what they’re looking for is unsavory.

What makes search engines a gateway to piracy, in the view of the study’s authors, is that in many cases users who do not start out looking specifically for infringing content find it and watch it anyway. From the executive summary:

The majority of search queries that lead to consumers viewing infringing film or TV content do not contain keywords that indicate specific intent to view this content illegally. 58% of queries that consumers use prior to viewing infringing content contain generic or title-specific keywords only, indicating that consumers who may not explicitly intend to watch the content illegally ultimately do so online. Additionally, searchers are more likely to rely on generic or title-specific keywords in their first visit than on subsequent visits

So fewer than one in five visits to an infringing URL come from search engines. And in slightly more than half of those, or roughly one in 10, there are indications — although no certainty — that the consumer may not have started out looking specifically for infringing content but found it thanks to the search engine.

That’s not what I would call really robust evidence in support of the charges.