Thursday, 16 July 2009

Cleaning out private data from Google

About a year ago I landed what I thought was a good job in a very small web development company, the role wasn't what I expected, the people were total dicks and not surprisingly I left under a cloud. Every now and then, like most people, I type names into google to see what pops up, mostly for me it tends to be lots of random actors, muggers, sports people and random teenagers with myspace pages. So the last thing I wanted to find when I googled my own name and hit the link to 'results from my country only' was a big grinning photo of moi at number 1, sat under the name of my old nemesis.

Why? Because I did not want to put this company on my CV, because they fired me. Now I could have come clean and explained it to any future employer with ease but the fact is, the world isn't perfect and people are prejudiced - I fully expected to get to the interview stage if I left it in. So of course, I left it out. Now I know that a lot of employers will google peoples name to find out information about you before the interview. This very company I got fired from embarrassed a candidate applying for the secretary's role by talking about the erm... 'artistic photographs' of her on her facebook page (that gives you an idea of the kind of dicks they were). Privacy is dead and companies have no morals.

So what to do about sorting this mess out? Well, firstly I got the old boss to remove the content by emailing him and politely suggesting that it doesn't benefit either of us (tip: avoid being confrontational at this stage). He saw things my way and removed it. The next step was to remove google's cache of the image and search results that linked to my name by using this tool:

https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/removals

It's easy enough to remove if the content has already been removed and is 404-ed or the content has changed. It takes a couple of weeks or so sometimes. Once you've done google, I suggest checking yahoo and possibly MSN (but I didn't seem to have a problem with these).

However, this is only the start of the quest to regain your privacy. Sites like 123people.co.uk seem to cache google searches and not only that, they search a bewildering array of sites that you'd completely taken for granted. For instance, a search for my name hit my Amazon wishlist and told you were I lived and what my girlfriends name was, fairly harmless but still more than I want known by just anyone. Needless to say I changed my 'unique facts' to something short and simple that only family would understand. Even if you removed the content from google, some of the content on this search site can stick around for MONTHS! I hate sites like these, they're about as sleazy as you can get - only a stalker thinks that a site like this is cool.

You might also want to check the Wayback machine (which keeps old copies of websites) and make sure that this hasn't grabbed your offending page. It's a little more than most employers would do to search this but it doesn't hurt to be thorough.

So if information does leak out onto the net, it's not the end of the world but it can be very time consuming and difficult (but not impossible) to remove.