Looking for more privacy? Here’s how to remove your phone number, email, physical address, and lots of other personal data about yourself from Google’s search results.
Personally identifiable information (PII) isn’t sacred to search engines—or at least, it hasn’t been. Over the years, Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have accepted that many people simply don’t want to be found in a search. Some newer laws have helped nudge companies in that direction. Sometimes, users overwhelmingly demanded better privacy tools. So Google began to relent(Opens in a new window). It never hurts to appear more privacy-oriented than the competition—which isn’t hard to do when you’re up against Facebook(Opens in a new window).
Recently, Google added to its privacy repertoire by letting you submit a request to delete your addresses (both physical and email) and phone numbers from potential search results. You can request this without even having to prove that the data floating out there is a problem (with some exceptions), which is a big step for the search engine.
The PII mentioned above has been added to the already-existing ability to limit exposure on Google results of the following:
- National ID numbers
- Bank accounts
- Credit card numbers
- Personal signatures
- Login info and credentials
- Medical records
- “Irrelevant pornography” (that is, explicit material somehow tied to your name)
- Deepfake porn you may appear in against your will.
If you’re afraid of getting doxxed(Opens in a new window), Google may even remove your professional contact info.
That’s all great news, but how exactly do you get Google to take down the offending PII?
Eventually, you’ll be able to do it within the Google app. Picture doing a search on your phone number, seeing it appear in results, and being able to click the three-dot menu next to the result to ask that it be deleted. Google says this will happen within the next few months. Before then, you’ve got to do a little bit more work.
The first stop is this Google Search Help page(Opens in a new window), which has a rundown of the options above but also shows the direct link to this form: Request to remove your personal information on Google(Opens in a new window).
The options are either to remove information that appears in search results or to prevent information from showing up in searches altogether. If you want the latter, and you own the website with the information you don’t want showing, Google spells out how to block a URL or specific site pages from Google search results. It involves robots.txt files(Opens in a new window), meta tags(Opens in a new window), and password-protecting page files(Opens in a new window).
Removing info requires you to know if it is appearing only in Google search results or in results and on a separate website. If the latter, Google may not have control over what’s there, and it asks whether you’ve contacted the site’s owner first to remove the information. It also suggests ways to get in touch with a site.
Maybe you don’t want to get in touch with a site, or you’ve already tried. Google asks you a series of questions, such as what type of info you’d like removed, narrowing it down to one specific thing when possible. It’ll also ask whether the content is being shared with the intent of doxxing(Opens in a new window) you—that’s when someone shares your PII with the intent to harm you. You might need to enter a lot of data, but the more detail you provide, the less likely it is that Google will have to follow up with you before nuking the PII in search results.
Google says if your PII appears on a live page you control, and you’ve already updated it to remove the information, eventually it should go away—but the page might be cached. That’s when you request to remove outdated web pages(Opens in a new window). You’ll need specific URLs for pages; you can submit up to 1,000 URLs on the form.
You can also request the removal of outdated images found at images.google.com—you’ll need to copy the URLs for each image as well (right-click and select Copy Image Address if you’re in the Chrome browser).
Next, you receive an email confirmation that the request came through. (If you don’t, do it again.) Google reviews the request, gathers more information if needed, and finally, you’ll get a notification of any action.
It’s worth noting that a request isn’t always guaranteed to be granted. Google’s announcement(Opens in a new window) carefully stated: “When we receive removal requests, we will evaluate all content on the web page to ensure that we’re not limiting the availability of other information that is broadly useful, for instance in news articles.” And again, removing the info from search results doesn’t remove it from the web page where it originally appeared.
Watch for Illegal Stuff
You may not just want to remove personal data—say, you see something in search that’s actually illegal, such as potentially criminal content or intellectual property infringement. In that case, you can go to Google’s Report Content for Legal Reasons at g.co/legal(Opens in a new window) and create a request. Google has a whole video about it.
Other Search Engines
What are the PII removal policies at other search engines?
With DuckDuckGo, which prides itself on privacy, your only recourse is to use the email email@example.com and hope that the PII you want removed falls under privacy laws. You won’t get any response from the company.
Microsoft’s Bing appears limited to letting you submit a Page Removal Request(Opens in a new window), but only for pages that are no longer live online. This is mainly for webmasters. Ultimately, Bing expects you to go to the website that first published your PII, do all the heavy lifting, and then try the Page Removal Request.
You’re Never Invisible
Scrubbing the search engines of your digital footprint is not the same as taking it off the internet. Search engines didn’t put the info out there—they indexed it, grabbing the data from some other source. And they could snag it again from a different source.
You’re never going to be completely free of search engine results unless you delete any and all traces of yourself and get offline entirely. You could always try services such as Abine’s DeleteMe or IDX Privacy’s Forget Me feature, which do what they can to prevent your information from being used by data brokers (for a subscription fee).
But until you delete all your old email accounts, stop using mobile apps and location services, quit social media, stop online shopping, and never sign into anything ever again, some entity will have something on you. You could try suing to remove your data, but that’s probably going to lead to the Streisand Effect(Opens in a new window), in which trying to hide something only makes it easier to find. That said, we have some tips that can help you almost Completely Disappear From the Internet while you listen to Babs sing “The Way We Were.”