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How Do I Remove Myself from the Search Engines?

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It was unwise of me to put in my name in some guestbooks. I’d like to remove my information from the search results of the major search engines: Google, Yahoo, and so forth. I tried in vain to contact the webmasters of those sites. I’m becoming fussier about that and it’s getting more awkward as far as my profession is concerned. Would you please assist me in dealing with this problem?

Search engines are amazing. They’ve collected and indexed billions and billions of pages of information out on the internet, making them available for any of us to find, review, and use.

Getting into search engines is not terribly difficult. Getting out? The news is not good.

In fact, in my opinion, it’s a lost cause.

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Too many search engines

We think of Google, Bing, and maybe a couple of other name brands as being “the search engines”, but in reality, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of search engines indexing pages on the web. Some have a special purpose or limited audience, but all have the potential to index and list the pages you’re concerned about.

Any of them could have a listing for your name.

Reaching out to all of them is somewhere between impractical (there are too many) and impossible (there’s no master list).

Most search engines won’t respond

Even among those you reach out to, most will not respond. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps most importantly:

  1. They don’t have time or resources to prioritize removal requests. Google may be huge and have lots of resources, but other search engines? Not so much.
  2. They don’t have the facilities to handle the extra validation required to prove that you are you — that you have the “right” (more on that in a moment) to request removal.

So they simply ignore all such requests.

Removal from search results is not removal from internet

Searching for meThis is perhaps the part that frustrates me the most, as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of exactly how the internet works.

Search engines don’t hold information about you; they merely index and point to websites that do.

Even if you successfully remove yourself from a search engine, you have not removed that information from the internet. It’s still on the original site, waiting to be found by other means, such as other search engines.

For example, let’s say I post an article about you here on askleo.com. Eventually, you search for your name on Google, and sure enough, the results include my article.

Now let’s say you successfully petition Google to remove your entry from their search results. When you Google yourself, my article about you no longer appears in the search results.

But it’s still here. You have not removed the information about you that was publicly published on my site. At best, you’ve made it a tad harder to find, but it’s still quite findable. Perhaps via Bing, perhaps via a foreign search engine — but the information is still there for anyone to see.

What it seems you really want is to ask the site owner — me, in this example — to remove the posting about you. That, too, has issues.

Going to the source

Rather than removing yourself from the search engines, it seems you want to use those search results to identify the actual sites that have your information. Then you could reach out to each of those sites and ask that your information be removed.

If they do, then as a side effect, over time the search engines would be updated to reflect that your information has disappeared at the source.

That’s what you really want. You don’t want to be removed from the search engines; you want to be removed from all the sites they point to.

Except once again, there’s no requirement for any of those sites to honor your request. They could ignore you, they could reject your request; heck, they could even take your request as a reason to highlight your information, rather than remove it.

Here on Ask Leo!, I’ve occasionally responded to requests to remove comments people have left in the past. As I said, there’s no requirement that I honor those requests, but I see no reason not to.

But it’s still not enough.

There are too many archives

Websites, particularly popular websites, are constantly being archived and copied.

There are two types of duplication at play here.

Archiving. Sites like The Internet Archive actively scan the internet on a regular basis, and, as the name implies, archive copies of websites and pages. It’s a great way to look back and see what a website looked like in the past, for example. Many search engines also maintain older “cached” copies of pages that they’ve scanned.

Plagiarism. The fact is, there are bad players out there who simply copy steal content and re-purpose it for their own uses. Any moderately successful website faces this issue.1

The net result? Even after removing your information from a website, archived or stolen copies of older pages may still be found. And while archives may or may not be responsive to your requests for removal, thieves rarely are.

Public once is public forever

The brutal fact to keep in mind is this: Once something has been published publicly on the internet, you lose all control over it.

You can’t un-ring a bell.

There are simply too many ways information takes on a life of its own. Between various forms of information duplication and indexing, it’s pragmatically (and quite possibly literally) impossible to guarantee removal of anything from the internet.

The internet never forgets.

So why can’t I find what I need?

If it’s so hard to make things disappear from the internet, why is it so difficult to find what I’m looking for?

Sadly, the two are only loosely related.

Looking for something means searching through billions and billions of pages on the internet. Your success depends on how well you use search engines, and how “findable” the information is.

Removing something also means searching through those billions and billions of pages, and asking the owners to delete whatever it is you’re trying to get rid of. Even if one trace is left, it might not be easily findable, but it’s still out there, ready to be stumbled into.

Just because you can’t easily find something doesn’t mean that someone someday won’t.

The “right to be forgotten”

With all that as background information, by now I hope you understand how misguided the so-called “right to be forgotten” laws really are.

The “right to be forgotten” legislation aims to require search engines to remove entries from their search results, based on whatever criteria the law happens to spell out.

Not only does the internet never forget — via archives, caches, and hundreds of different search engines — but on top of that, the laws don’t have global reach. A law requiring that a search engine result be removed in country “A” has absolutely no bearing on country “B”.2

That the laws are “misguided” is putting it mildly … and politely.

The “Streisand Effect”

But wait! It gets even worse!

In 2003, actress Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress photos taken of her home. The net result was that those photographs got even more public attention than they would have had she just said or done nothing. This unintended consequence of bringing more attention to something by the act of trying to suppress it has become known as The Streisand Effect.

It happens all the time, particularly online.

The currently most common example? A public figure publishes an embarrassing tweet or photo, and then deletes it. Within moments, archives or screen shots of the item — often simply taken from individual browser caches — appear and replicate all over the internet.

You can’t un-ring a bell. Often, attempting to do so simply makes more noise.

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Footnotes & references

1: I have alerts set on my name and phrases like “ask leo”, and get reports of my content being duplicated on random sites almost daily. Fortunately, Google is very good about realizing that mine is the authoritative and original source.

2: Nor, I think, do we want it to. Do you really want another country telling yours what you can and cannot find?

29 comments on “How Do I Remove Myself from the Search Engines?”

  1. I did not post this information in Google you did.. you have my home listed as a hotel. This is really harassment as I get phone calls at all hours of the night wanting to book a sleeping room in my home. I am a home sales office for the Hyatt Hotel Corp in Chicago. PLease remove my home address in Chesterfield Missouri(that you have listed as a Hyatt hotel) from your web site!

  2. Who is this “you” you think you’re talking to?

    This is Ask Leo! – not Google. I have no knowledge of you, what you’re doing or why you’re posting this complaint on my web site.

    And PLEASE read the article you’ve just commented on.

  3. Please help me get rid of Google, it has taken over Yahoo as my opening page I always have to go back to the history to bring Yahoo back, how do I get rid of Google?

    • Somehow, YOU changed your home page, or YOU allowed some application to change it. This last case appens a lot when you blindly install something using only the default option. You must always use “Personalized”, “Advance” or “Expert” mode for the installation and actually READ the various pages and decline any and all change that you don’t want. Some have already checked agree box, other use UNchecked “please no” option, often in small print and low contrast text.
      All YOU need to do is to set http://www.yahoo.com as your home page. Really easy to do, nothing fancy, no magic trick there.
      The exact process changes for each browser, so I can’t baby step you through.

  4. Great article. Helps me know we are all screwed if an ex girlfriend or friend wants to talk crap about you.

  5. That service does not do what the original question asked. It does not REMOVE
    anything from the search engine.

    If that service works, all it does is bury the information lower in search
    results. It’s still quite findable.

    Leo
    18-Oct-2009
  6. Well, Leo, you’re absolutely right, however you have not found another solution to this problem, have you?

    My friend’s girlfriend got into a big mess, which was aired on national TV. After that her name appeared in a few articles online and she was very embarassed to see that every time someone Googled her name… So, what’s the solution for her??? Nothing that you proposed would help her… E-mail Google a dozen times – they are not going to remove the pages from the index… E-mail CNN, where the article shows, – they could care less…

    I whitnessed this service “burry” the negative results far enough to the 3rd page, where no one even cares to look. She’s happy, my friend is happy, everyone’s happy… Isn’t that the bottom line? You don’t care if it’s erased or not – you just don’t want the embarassment… and if it doesn’t show on the first page, 99% of the searchers will never find out about that article, website, or whatever it is.

    Am I wrong? Tina, in the post above, has a similar problem with her phone number listed – I’m sure there’s a similar solution for that…

  7. Look at the title to the article: “How do I remove myself from the search
    engines?” You’re right, I’ve not found an answer, because as the article
    states, I don’t believe there is one.

    “Burying” your information lower in the search results is NOT the same as
    removing it. Depending on the situation burying it may not be anywhere near
    what people are looking for. For example, a dedicated stalker or private
    investigator would almost certainly look past page three of the results.

    So while burying might be enough for some people, it’s most definitely not
    enough for many.

    And it’s not the answer to the question that I was asked.

    Leo
    18-Oct-2009
  8. but sometimes some webmasters need to do some experiments on one of them websites and didn’t want visitors to reach for this website , any way i think that most intelligent search engine is Google (because google archive any website on the internet once you setup it without need to add it in search engine such as yahoo) , so if you want to remove your website from search engine , you can saw these useful links:
    google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35303

    google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35302

    google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35301&topic=13511

    google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=508&topic=13511

  9. Why would we pay a company to push our names back only 2 or 3 webpages when we can do that OURSELVES by posting our names into bulletin boards and so forth . . . the problem is, we can’t get them REMOVED !

    I’m facing this problem as well ! I had a man get mad at me after filing a report and now my name has the word “prostitute” next to it when I’m Googled. Being in a conservative industry, this is not good !

    It’s sad that the only way to escape it, in reality, is to change our names !

    Overnight, I was able to push the negative information to the 2nd page . . . geez, why would I pay someone $1,000 to only push it back 3 pages ?

    If I want to bury my information, I simply have to post positive info. all over the internet with my full name attached to it on a consistent, daily basis . . . I figure, 10 times a day and eventually, it will all be pushed back very far.

  10. i decided to go post my name in some forums and blogs for the same reason, and the people who where mad at me posted comments and responses back and now I have like ten times the bad press, i am so upset. guess i have to check some of these companies or something to help me, just be careful wher you post.

  11. Dear Sir,

    About a year ago I wanted to -google- my name within -Google-,-Yahoo-, MSN, Alta Vista, and others by typing it within the search windows because, after being interviewed by a legitimate news-reporter (it was about sports), they told me to search on the internet for the relative publication with my name on it; it was a leggitimate publication; later I was able to find it and it was O.K.: a few months later, by just -googling- again my name, -strange- headlines started popping out on the pages with my name showing, and by just clicking on these, -illegitimate- web sites would follow: now it’s a ‘huge’ mess and I tried to have all of these pages removed, but then others started to come out!!! What am I supposed to do? How can I stop my name being used as a link to these -awful- web sites? Is it convenient to use the services available on line, or is it waisted money? Which ones would you suggest, and how was it possible to have my name within all of this? I noticed later that other people identities
    were stolen for the same purpose (many of them) and are names that belong to various well known personalities among the financial world, CEO’s, Politicians, etc., etc. ; Hope to find a way out!

    Thanks for any help and Regards,

    Frank

  12. The only sane way to stay anonymous is to create a secondary screen name and/or email for internet posting purposes only. Keep your professional email/screen name for business purposes only. This way you won’t get criticized or slandered for posting what you want!

  13. Friggin’ internet. Bringing us closer together, huh? How about it destroying people’s lives.

    Like so many technologies we accept without question, it can be used or misused, for good or for bad.

    – Leo
    09-Mar-2009
  14. What if you have an attorney contact the owner of the site? Would they remove it before I spend a few hundred for legal fees?

    Depends on the site, and their own responsiveness. Probably depends on whether or not they’re even in this country and bound by our laws. And let’s face it, even here they may have every right to leave up what has been posted whether you like it or now. There’s no clear answer here.

    – Leo
    07-Apr-2009
  15. Legal is not the way to go here… Even if you get a court order to take the negative info down, which is very unlikely, it is still not guaranteed that you’d get the negative link off of google… although I guess you could take the same court order to google then and see if they remove it.

    • Ha ha….. If he got a court order, then that would become searchable on the Internet and the court site. This whole thing is like picking a sore…. the more you do it…. the worse it gets.

  16. On a related matter: it’s a good move, when the phone company gives you a ‘new’ telephone number, to google it and see if it’s secondhand. I was getting lots of calls from catering companies and soon found out that my number had once been used by a visitor centre up the road, and was listed in various online business directories!

    • I have lived in 2 houses owned by dead beats, who owed money to doctors and court systems. It did not matter that I got a new phone number when I moved in…… my phone number was tied to the house.

  17. Depending on the size of the site, the site owner can remove individual links or entries from many of the search engines. I have a site that I did not want showing up in the search engines. As the site owner, it was very easy to have Google remove all links to it. They were gone in three days time and it was all automated. If the site is small enough, you might be able to get them to make a similar request for entries with your information – chances are they wont, but you could always give it a try. Not all of the search sites are as helpful, and your best hopes would be for removal from the biggest few.

  18. After reading all the comments here, I just have to say to most of them….get over yourselves, the chances that anyone that doesn’t already know your history is nil, or next to none. As Leo says so often….you are just not that interesting. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but most of the comments here are just stupid.

    • Gary, calling most comments stupid more applies to your post than any of the posts here. Especially, saying get over yourselves, you are not interesting. Your assumptions are ridiculous. You missed the whole point of why people wanting to be removed, especially from guest books that they have signed and posted their email. This not only leads to spam, but to scams. One scammer was trying the old “I have some money I will transfer to your account, but need help, etc.” on me. I told him I knew he was trying to scam me, and asked how he got my name and email address. He actually admitted he got it from a guest book I signed.

    • Gary: What exactly is your point in calling people’s posts “stupid” and telling them to get over themselves? The vast majority of people using computers really don’t understand more than the basics, and that’s fine. We all have a right to take part, don’t we? Those who don’t at least try to learn something more about computers, software, internet usage, etc., are harming only themselves. Frankly, it really isn’t any of your business. And while it appears that you seem to think you are one of the smartest people on the planet, second only, perhaps, to Stephen Hawking, that does not give you the right to be rude. Didn’t your mother ever advise you to say nothing at all if you can’t say something nice or useful? If not, she certainly should have! Have a lovely day. 🙂

  19. I clicked on your link for twitter in the article (from an Android phone). I chose to open it with the twitter app instead of a browser. It opened a new box with the statement and link to this article. already there. Pretty cool. What was even cooler was that immediately responded to the tweet with the comment “Unless you’re The Dr.” The response automatically inputted your twitter handle even though that wasn’t in the original tweet. Now that is REALLY cool! It’s also beyond me how you did that. Is that very difficult to do and can it be done on facebook posts? I.e., if I embed a twitter link in a facebook post, will it work the same as yours?

  20. Anything you write on the internet (including this) stays.
    If johnpro2 is searched for example, some articles I would sooner forget are still there from years ago. Same deal for Facebook ..I use an aka there as well.
    Compromising pics and vids which may have seemed a good idea at the time can also come back to haunt.

  21. A friend recently had the misfortune of being arrested for DUI. She was innocent and all charges were dropped. Despite that her mug shot and arrest “record”: appears on the first page when anyone searches on her less than common name. This is upsetting to her. She has signed up for some positive websites like LinkedIn and BrandYourself in attempts to bury the arrest link and move it to later search pages. I suggested she write and post articles on some free article websites. Years ago when I did that for a client they proliferated wildly on the Internet and buried links I actually wanted to appear on the first page. This is a free method of moving links to later search pages.

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