Et Tu, Google? (Redux Version)

Q. Boyer

Almost exactly a year ago, this column took up the subject of Google Glass, and more specifically, Google’s decision to establish content and development policies that prohibited the creation of sexually explicit apps for Google’s new wearable hardware. I also noted that as a search engine, Google remained pretty darn open to porn, but wondered aloud if and when that fact might change, too.

Google’s recent decision to cease accepting ads that “promote graphic depictions of sexual acts including, but not limited to, hardcore pornography; graphic sexual acts including sex acts such as masturbation; genital, anal, and oral sexual activity” was not entirely unexpected by those who promote their adult sites via AdWords, but even so, it’s a severe blow. To the extent that it might be a harbinger of more conservative policy shifts to come, it could signal the beginning of the end of adult websites monetizing Google traffic, altogether.

Given a choice between passively sitting back and accepting these changes on their received terms, it might be smarter to try to push the shifting sands in a direction that offers at least some benefit to our industry.

While there’s no shortage of adult sites indexed by Google, one can’t help but notice that certain stand-alone search terms that once yielded a massive number of adult site links in their SERPs now only return links to adult content if the user appends a modifier like “porn” or “sex” to the search. A perfect example is “BDSM”; in the old days, that search term would return a flood of sites that featured BDSM-related pictures and videos, but now the top responses are the Wikipedia page devoted to BDSM, an entry from the Urban Dictionary, and a host of other non-pornographic options.

There’s nothing wrong with Google’s new approach to search strings like BDSM, I suppose – although I do have a hunch that a sizable percentage of people who type “BDSM” into Google are already perfectly clear on what the abbreviation stands for, and are more interested in seeing it depicted. For those people, Google’s change in how it handles such terms obviously doesn’t do much to deliver responses that are relevant to the purpose of their query, as opposed to being relevant to the query string itself. This is an important distinction, and one that Google would do well to consider; a search engine isn’t a dictionary, after all, and savvier web users might not appreciate being presented with Encyclopedia Brittanica-style information when what they’re looking for is something a tad more risqué.

What’s behind this gradual movement towards a less porn-friendly Google? I suspect the answer is more complicated than pressure from anti-porn groups, which has been the primary culprit identified by the media outlets who have covered Google’s AdWords decision. Morality in Media is claiming it as a victory of their lobbying efforts, but that claim simply strains credulity. MIM’s relevance on the political scene has never been lower, and by their own account, the MIM coffers are hardly overflowing with contributions from the public these days.

The far more likely explanation is that somehow, somewhere, there’s a major business deal in place that stands to make Google an obscene amount of money, and that deal was tied to the de-pornification of AdWords. What manner of deal it is, and who with, I have no idea – but I do know that money is a terrific corporate motivator, one that is far more inspiring than a form-letter campaign employing Biblical and moralistic arguments in an attempt to persuade a high tech company to divest itself of a fairly significant source of advertising revenue. In other words, the only way to persuade a company like Google to leave one pile of money on the table is to replace it with a larger stack of different money.

Regardless of the inspiration behind Google’s policy change, the best response to it on behalf of the adult industry just might be one that has more than a tinge of irony to it: We might be wise to pressure Google to take its porn ban even further.

After all, since Google’s organic search responses to porn-related queries are dominated by sites that are giving adult content away for free – often against the wishes of the relevant rights-holder – subscription sites, PPV/VOD and adult e-commerce sites are left scrambling for the scraps left behind. If Google could somehow be persuaded to drop sites that distribute adult content for free (regardless of whether those sites are actively violating anyone’s copyrights in the process), it wouldn’t magically reestablish all the traffic lost by way of the AdWords policy change, but it would at least ensure a far smaller competitive pool, and serve to level the playing field quite a bit.

Such a change is very, very unlikely to come as a matter of law. It’s far too complicated a legal question to address here (and as a non-lawyer, obviously I’m not the one to do it, anyway), but the bottom line is that it would be very difficult under the U.S. courts’ current interpretation of First Amendment precedent to force any search engine to de-list free porn sites. As a voluntary measure, however, the technical difficulty of such a prohibition is easily within Google’s ability, and workaround measures undertaken by those seeking to defeat the band could be addressed through a community reporting mechanism much like the one Google already relies on in operating YouTube; when users found free porn being promoted and distributed in violation of Google’s policies, they could flag and report those apparent violations.

Whether or not one thinks it a good idea to lobby against our own industry, in effect, by pressuring Google to further adjust its adult content policies, the truth appears to be that Google and many other mainstream companies already are moving in a more restrictive direction of their own accord. Given a choice between passively sitting back and accepting these changes on their received terms, it might be smarter to try to push the shifting sands in a direction that offers at least some benefit to our industry. There might even be a positive public relations effect to be had by positioning our lobbying as an effort to restrict minors’ access to porn.

While any effort by the adult industry to lobby Google is unlikely to succeed, it’s worth the effort to try. Just by reaching out and engaging Google on the topic, and positioning the outreach not as a manner of protest but as sincere desire to work with them in ways that benefit Google and not just our own narrow self-interest, we could garner long term results that amount to some sort of improvement on the status quo.

The alternative is to continue sitting on the sidelines, bitching about Google’s policy changes as they are announced and complaining about content piracy while simultaneously striving to outdo each other in terms of how much porn we give away for free. No doubt, this approach will provide us with plenty of grist for our self-pity mill, but it won’t do a damn thing to improve the visibility of our brands to the consumer – which, it might be worth noting, is what search engine marketing is supposed to be about in the first place.

A 16-year veteran of the online adult entertainment industry and long-time XBIZ contributor, Q Boyer provides public relations, publicity, consulting and copywriting services to clients that range from adult website operators to mainstream brick and mortar businesses.