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September 15, 2014 | Music Notes Blog

More Evidence is In - Intermediaries Matter

For a long time, we’ve been talking about the importance of intermediaries such as search engines, ISP’s, payment processors, and others who participate in the digital music economy (see here). As more and more music access and listening occurs online, those groups have a larger role in helping shape the digital music consumer’s experience. Perhaps that is self-evident in some ways, but recent research findings have more conclusively shown that those intermediaries, and search engines in particular, can have a strong influence on the choices consumers make.

A new study from Carnegie Mellon University (link here and here) might be the most comprehensive study yet on the link between search engines and media piracy. In “Do Search Engines Influence Media Piracy? Evidence from A Randomized Field Study”, Professors Sivan, Smith, and Telang describe an innovative methodology for determining the effects on consumer behavior of where search engines place links to content. In summary, the investigators showed random participants search engine results that had been modified to manipulate the placement of content links depending on whether the source was authorized or unauthorized. For example, in an experimental group on the effects of placing links to authorized sources higher in search rankings, respondents would see search results that only showed authorized content links in the top ranked positions.

The results of the study confirmed what search engines have likely known all along, that more highly placed links do have an effect influencing consumer behavior. In the authors’ words “…users are more likely to choose a pirate option when piracy links are promoted.” More importantly, the study further showed that the placement of those links even influenced the choices of people who had indicated a preference for finding legal or infringing content. In short, even among consumers who intended to find legal content, those same users were less likely to purchase legally when the search engine promoted links to pirated content. They found similarly that users who intended to pirate content were more likely to purchase legally when legal options were ranked higher by the search engine.

Of course this isn’t the only evidence we’ve seen that search engines can strongly influence user behavior when it comes to finding pirated content. In a survey of digital music listeners done by consumer research firm MusicWatch, search engines were found to be one of the most common ways users discover sites to download music without paying. Additionally, the vast majority (87%) of respondents in that study said that if search engines indicated which music websites were authorized, it would impact which sites they chose to access music.

Some search engines have begun to acknowledge their role in this area. In 2012, Google announced that it would begin using copyright removal notices to demote unauthorized content links in search results (see here). But so far, those efforts have had little effect. Despite sending tens of millions of the notices that were supposedly going to affect infringing site rankings, search results continue to consistently rank infringing sites among the top results. The new research we are seeing now confirms the harm this is causing. Both consumers and Google’s content partners deserve better.

Joshua P. Friedlander
Vice President, Strategic Data Analysis, RIAA