It may sound a bit alarmist, but the truth is, you can't control everything that happens online. You may be (rightfully) worried if something very personal has been leaked on the Web, including:
Your social security number
Your credit card or debit card numbers
Your bank account information
Information about an unreleased product or service
Personal photos, videos, or other media
Ready for some good news? Although there's no way to guarantee that someone hasn't saved your personal information offline somewhere, you can at least provide damage control to limit the exposure of your personal information once it has leaked.
Aside from hiring online reputation experts like our team at Reputation X, there are actions you can take on your own to work toward removing web pages with personal information on them. Here’s a flowchart to help you begin, and some more information below it.
The first question to ask yourself is whether you're trying to remove something from Google or another search engine's results, or if you want to remove it from the Web altogether.
Each of these options will require a different approach. For example, if your social security number has been leaked on a website and you successfully remove that website from Google search results, people can still access that website if they know the URL, or if they use Bing or Yahoo to find the page.
Now, considering that Google is still the most popular search engine among internet users, capturing 75% of market share in 2016, removing your personal information from Google will have a significant effect on who is likely to find it.
However, if you want to make certain no one can find your information, you'll have to take additional steps. When removing personal information from the Web, you must first determine if you own the content or not.
For example, if a vindictive roommate or ex-partner logged into your Facebook account and posted your cell phone number to the world, the solution may be simple. You may only have to log into your Facebook account and delete the post or change the section of your profile, where the information was made public.
A Facebook account is an example of something you "own" online. Here are some more examples of what you own, and therefore control:
However, if your personal information is published on a page you don't own, you'll have to work directly with the site owner to remove the content. Here are some examples:
These situations can be tricky and may require employing an expert or lawyer to help you if the site owner is unable or unwilling to help.
Now, regarding removing information only from Google, Google will help you in some cases whether or not you control the content itself. On their troubleshooting site, Google states:
"You can ask Google to remove your sensitive personal information, like your bank account number, or an image of your handwritten signature, or a nude or sexually explicit image or video of you that’s been shared without your consent, from Google search results."
Outside of these circumstances, if something violates the law, you can visit Google's Legal Removal Requests page to file a request. Examples of content that Google would likely remove include:
Keep in mind, however, that even if Google removes such content from search results, the content still exists if someone else owns the site on which the content lives.
Removing personal info from Google may seem like a difficult process, and at times, it can be. The truth is, Google's mission is to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful." It's Google's very commitment to honesty and transparency that puts certain measures in place about what can and can't be removed online. But just because you think something ought to be removed doesn't mean Google does. They routinely refuse removals and if the removal doesn't fit a narrowly defined set of items they may request a court order - and those are expensive to get.
So while it may seem like a headache to get your personal information removed from search results (or the Web as a whole), keep in mind that it's these same measures that enable others to find good, quality information about you and your business as well. It's unfortunate when your information falls into the wrong hands, and we understand how frustrating and scary it can be.
If it's too much trouble to take the removal steps on your own, you may consider partnering with an expert in online reputation management. At Reputation X, for example, we take a fully customized and human-powered approach to solving your challenges and improving your online reputation. We can be as comprehensive or focused as you’d like. With our team’s range of expertise, from SEO and PPC to content strategy and online review management, we have enabled hundreds of individuals, businesses, and government organizations to turn their online image around.