Someone has perfected a playbook for pulling webpages off Google, according to a new post by UCLA lawyer Eugene Volokh. Volokh finds a series of unusual court cases that resulted in web pages being de-indexed by Google, making them unavailable to Search or other services. In some cases, reputation management firms were apparently charging as much as $6,000 a month for the service.
Google will generally de-index pages if it receives a credible report that the page contains pirated content or defamatory statements. The reports are available in a public archive, and the vast majority of them concern pirated content. The standard for a successful request can be somewhat complex, but a legal injunction against the offending party is typically sufficient to de-index a site, making it effectively invisible to Google searches.
$6000 a month to make a page disappear from Google
Volokh seems to have uncovered a way of gaming that system, giving bad actors the power to de-index any site they want. In the cases he describes, plaintiffs file lawsuits against dummy defendants who immediately agree to the proposed injunctions against them. The cases never see trial, and in many cases, the defendants themselves seem not to exist — but they exist long enough to get a court-approved injunction that can be sent to Google to de-index the site.
Volokh’s investigation turned up 25 different instances of the scam in roughly the past year, although none of the named defendants could be located. In once case, a firm was able to de-index a news article by filing an injunction against an offending statement in the comments section, thus pulling the entire page off Google’s index.
The phony claims represent a small percentage of the overall notices, as it’s common for Google to receive well over 100 copyright takedowns in a single day. Still they suggest that some reputation management firms have become adept at gaming Google’s system, and the company may need to devote more resources to examining apparently legal injunctions.
It also suggests the law shouldn’t place any unnecessary legal weight on the takedown notices, as some cases are currently threatening to do. “The questionable nature of many such injunctions is reason to further insist that platforms not be legally bound by them,” Volokh concludes.