I recently underwent a bit of a project to remove myself, as far as possible, from the internet. It all came about through a conversation with an ‘internet friend’ in which I smugly demonstrated that I had managed to find out a fair bit about him despite him having revealed little but his first name during our conversations. He parried by simply sticking my full name into Google and then taking the piss out of me about the wide range of things that came up. This blog, an old blog, some YouTube videos, guest articles, pictures of me, and so on. Of course, I always knew that I had a fairly open internet presence – that is one of the trade-offs of writing a blog and trying to maintain a professional profile, of course – but it was slightly disconcerting to realise just how much one could find out about me.
So, as an experiment rather than out of any desperate need for security, I decided to spend some time trying to remove myself as far as possible from the internet. Or rather, to reduce the number of hits that appear when you Google my full name, that are actually about me.
I haven’t been fully successful, but I have certainly minimised the amount of information out there. When I started, if you Googled my full name you would get several pictures of me in Google Images, and in regular results most of the first two pages would be real results for me, including things like blogs, social media profiles, old fundraising pages and guest posts. Now, one image of me remains (and only if you click through to Google images, it’s not shown on the first page of results) and nothing in the first two pages of results is actually about me except my LinkedIn (which I’ll come back to) and a listing that takes data from Companies House, about which there’s not much I can do.
So what have I learnt, and what tips do I have?
The first thing to do, obviously, is to Google your own name and see what comes up. It’s worth doing this in incognito mode so you get a more representative view of what an average user sees, but the main ones will probably be the same regardless. Make a list of what comes up, and then start figuring out how to kill off each one.
Essentially, with each item you have two options, subdivided depending on whether or not you control it
- Remove the content
- If you control it, delete it or hide it behind a password
- If you don’t control it, request its removal
- Keep the content, but stop it showing in searches
- If you control it – make changes either to privacy settings, or by removing key information such as your surname
- If you don’t control it, request changes from whomever does
That’s all there is to it really. But here are a few tips for common areas where you might want to make changes.
LinkedIn is likely to be the first result for a lot of people, and it’s also highly likely to be the source of the main image of you that will show in Google image results. That can be good from a professional perspective, but if you don’t want that kind of information about you out there, here’s what you can do (aside from simply deleting your account, of course):
In settings, go to Privacy, go to ‘edit my public profile’, and then select ‘Make my public profile visible to no one’. This means that anyone who is not logged in to LinkedIn and goes to your public profile, for example through a Google result, will get a message suggesting you don’t exist. This also means that you can request removal of the result from Google altogether, using Webmaster tools, which I’ll come on to below. The benefit is that logged-in users will still be able to find you, so it shouldn’t have too much of an effect on your professional visibility, given the importance in many industries of maintaining a LinkedIn profile.
This change should also ultimately prevent your image from appearing in Google Images, although it may take some time to drop out of results.
A second change you can make in privacy settings is to use abbreviated surname for anyone except your connections. This means you will appear in results as, for example, John S instead of John Smith, adding an extra level of privacy when strangers search for you.
Finally, down at the bottom, you can prevent people from discovering your profile from your email address or phone number, which is a change well worth making, as its currently all too easy to find out who a phone number belongs to by just sticking it into Facebook or LinkedIn (I’ll come on to this feature on FB). You can also prevent your LinkedIn info from being used in other services like Outlook, which probably doesn’t have much impact but I’d still do just to be on the safe side.
Facebook is an absolute nightmare from a privacy point of view. Despite its much-vaunted privacy settings, it actually doesn’t really want you to be able to hide. There are five key changes I’d make, however:
- Remove your mobile number from your account. You probably added this at some point, and Facebook really wants you to have it in there, but it means anyone with your mobile number can find your profile on Facebook, which is not ideal at all. There’s nothing stopping you from deleting it altogether, which is my preference. Alternatively, in Privacy Settings you can change ‘who can find me by my mobile number (and email address)’ to ‘friends only’. I’d say this is an absolutely vital change which anyone concerned about privacy should do.
- Change ‘do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile’ to no. Of course.
- Ensure that all of your future images and posts are limited to ‘friends’ only, and then use the ‘limit the audience of past posts’ tool to ensure the same applies to all your previous posts. This should mean that only your profile photo can be seen by anyone who searches for you.
- Prevent non-connections from seeing your friends list. It’s far too easy to find out a lot about you by looking at your friends’ profiles, especially if that have weak privacy settings.
- Change your name on Facebook. Use your middle name, or a slight variation on your real name. Anything that makes you harder to find. And don’t forget to change your custom URL as well.
There are two easy things to do on Twitter, both of which I’d recommend, but if having a public profile is really important to you for professional engagement or just funny twitter banter then you can do the first only.
- Ensure that neither your Twitter name, username or profile references your real full name. Again, initials are your friend.
- Set your account to private, so only approved followers can see your tweets.
The second of these is more of a long-term privacy thing. The first one should, in time and perhaps with a prod from Google removals, cause your Twitter account to fall out of search results.
YouTube is another absolute nightmare because it’s tied in to your Google account, which is tied in to every other Google product you use. In the end, I locked down all the privacy settings and changed my Google name to use only the initial of my surname (John S, again). This also helps prevent your Google+ account from showing up, if you’re the sort of person who ever actually put anything there. However, because everything is interconnected, it means that is the name that shows up in your Gmail emails, which is frankly a pain.
I also had posts on Medium, and followed a similar approach of altering my name so that they stopped showing up in results.
Guest blogs are a trickier one as you’re unlikely to have access. In the end I simply politely email the blog owners, explained what I was doing, and asked if they could change any reference to my name in the blog to use an initialled surname, or no surname at all. Most will be understanding. If they refuse and you really, really want the information removed there are more forceful legal routes you can take but of course you would hope not to have to.
Of the information that remains online about me, most is now on one site that is out of my control and where I haven’t yet bothered to contact the owner and ask him to remove my name. I will do so at some point, but it’s a little sensitive and the matter isn’t urgent.
Others are, as mentioned, sites that scrape public records such as Companies House director lists, and there’s little I can do about that. There are also aggregators that pull information from various social channels and then create a consolidated directory. Many of these will infact provide a function to request removal but, even if they don’t, they will ultimately become useless if you have changed the privacy settings on all of the sites they link to or take information from.
A few other ones I had were fundraising or charity sites, and in these cases I just logged in and either changed privacy settings or removed the pages entirely.
What if the listings don’t disappear straight away?
Almost every change you make will have to be followed up with a removal request to Google, made here: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/removals.
There are two types of removals. The first type is where the page is completely gone, and here the tool works pretty well, and will often remove it within a day or two. The second type is where content has changed, and in this case you will have to enter a word that is no longer on the site, so Google can verify it has changed. The obvious thing to do is to enter your surname, which is usually what you will have removed. I found that these requests were often rejected, for reasons that were unclear, but some did work. Ultimately results will fall out of Google rankings anyway, but it may take some time, even when you have removed the original keywords.