8/15/2023: Hide yourself from Google Search

How to stay hidden in Google Search

Hello, Square readers! Jared Newman here. This article comes from Advisorator, my weekly newsletter for practical tech advice. You can learn more about it at the bottom of this post.

For years, Google made it incredibly easy to look up someone’s address, phone number, age, and other personal info.

All you had to do was type in a person’s name and where they live, and you’d get all kinds of details from sites like Whitepages and Spokeo, which pull together that info from public and private sources. Creepy as this is, doing anything about it has always been a slog, and most people never bothered.

Thankfully, that’s starting to change. Google now offers a simple removal tool for hiding those people search sites from its search engine, and with a little more legwork, you can delist yourself from the sites themselves. It’s easier than you might think.

Google’s new removal tool

Google launched its search results removal tool last fall, letting users de-list pages that include their personal details with just a few clicks. Here’s how it works:

  • Search for your name and a bit of personal info, such the town or city you live in.
  • When you find a result that includes your information, click the button next to it.
  • At the top of the “More Options” menu that pops up, click “Remove Result.”
  • When asked why you’d like to remove the result, select “It shows my personal contact info.”
  • On the next page, confirm your name and contact info.
  • Click “Send” to confirm the request.

Google says it responds to these requests within a few days, but I’ve yet to see it take more than 12 hours. While requests are subject to Google’s removal policies—it won’t for instance, pull results that are newsworthy, or that come from government sources—but it seems to be pretty lax overall. I was even able to remove a page about my wife that listed me as a relative and included a previous home address.

One catch: Removal requests require a Google account, so you’ll need to set one up if you don’t have one already.

But once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to track each request through Google’s “Results about you” dashboard . An update to this dashboard, coming soon, will also proactively surface results that include your personal info, and you’ll be able to get notified through Google’s mobile app if new results arise.

A deeper cleanse

Removing a result from Google search doesn’t delete the page itself. People can still look up that information through other search engines or by going directly to sites like Whitepages.

Deleting yourself from those sites is a whole other rabbit hole, which may not be necessary if you’re just trying to discourage casual snooping. But if you want a deeper clean, there are a few things you can do.

First, set up Permission Slip, a free app from Consumer Reports that I wrote about back in January. The app’s “Auto Requests” feature automates the process of getting data brokers to delete your info, some of which feeds into popular people search sites. (Unfortunately, Permission Slip is still iOS-only, with Android marked as “Coming Soon.”)

Beyond that, you’ll have to make opt out requests with each individual site. Burdensome as this may seem, usually it’s just a matter of finding their opt out pages, then submitting a link to the offending page along with a valid email address to verify the request.

Here’s where you can find the opt out pages for major people search sites:

DeleteMe also offers a searchable list of guides to opting out of more sites.

A couple caveats though: Strongly consider using a disposable email address for your requests—no need to give these companies more info than they already have—and do not pay for any opt out services they might try to offer.

Extreme measures

If all that seems like too much work, you can always pay companies like DeleteMe and Optery to handle deletion requests for you.

But much like third-party antivirus software and system cleaners, these services tend to inflate the amount of work they’re actually doing, and probably aren’t necessary outside of some narrow situations.

Optery’s free self-service version seems intentionally overwhelming.

I signed up for Optery’s free version, for instance, and it claimed that 246 sites were exposing my personal data, yet when I clicked through on many of the results, said data was nowhere to be found. With the steps I’d taken above, most sites have already removed my data or are in the process of doing so, and none of them are showing up in Google anyway.

Ultimately, the goal is not to banish every trace of personal information from the internet. That’s a Sisyphean task, especially given how often our data simply leaks into the hands of hackers.

But the more friction you can introduce to the process of looking up your personal info, the more you’ll be able to deter casual snooping. To that end, even just a little effort goes a long way.

Thanks for reading!

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