From the too-good-to-be-true desk: A December report from YouTube amended the viewcounts of several channels down by a whopping two billion, amidst a new crackdown on dubious count-inflating techniques. Some of the channels in question were owned by major record labels, bogeymen to music snobs and IP-skeptics everywhere, and some concluded Google was punishing them for misbehavior. The Daily Dot had the story:

Google slashed the cumulative view counts on YouTube channels belonging to Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG, and RCA Records by more than 2 billion views Tuesday, a drastic winter cleanup that may be aimed at shutting down black hat view count-building techniques employed by a community of rogue view count manipulators on the video-sharing site.

The Daily Mail and the Huffington Post, among others, repeated it. The catch? The vast majority of the subtractions from Universal and Sony’s channels came because YouTube decided to change its viewcount-tallying scheme, excluding “dead” videos, as Billboard reported. And the labels had been in the midst of transitioning their content to a subdivision of YouTube:

In the latest “de-spam,” YouTube subtracted 1.5 million views from Sony and Universal’s channels. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just a fraction of the 1.3 billion it subtracted throughout its entire video library.

That leaves us with 1.9985 billion views still unaccounted for.

The answer comes in the second way that YouTube changed its view count. The company recently decided to remove view counts for videos that are no longer live on the channel, or so-called “dead videos.” For Universal and Sony, that meant thousands of music videos that over the past three years slowly have migrated to the VEVO channel, which is jointly owned by the two companies. A senior label executive confirmed the migration.

TechDirt’s Mike Masnick notes that there may have still been some manipulation on the labels’ part, and that it wouldn’t be entirely uncharacteristic, but it’s not the scandal it appears:

The record labels have a long history of knowing how to manipulate key numbers to their advantage. Look how labels have manipulated the various charts over the years and you’ll find that it’s a big part of how they do business. So it probably struck little by surprise to hear that the labels were now being accused of massively manipulating YouTube view counts to make certain songs look a hell of a lot more popular than they really are. The only problem? It’s not actually true.

… I know lots of people would like to believe Sony Music and Universal Music faked 2 billion views and were now being punished for it, but it’s just not the case.

In addition to a number of software tools, there’s also a cottage industry by which one can pay someone to upload YouTube videos, optimize them, and help them go viral. I had a friend who made what worked out to about $15 an hour for months doing this kind of stuff–apparently it’s profitable. In the abstract I don’t see why it’s any worse than other kinds of promotional work, but if payment is based on advertising revenue derived from viewcounts, YouTube has a stake in preserving their integrity. And as long as YouTube prohibits this kind of gamesmanship the cat-and-mouse game will continue.