Google accused of burying webmail service on search results

Google

Google has been accused of hiding a competitor’s webmail service from its search results in a “suspicious” manner for almost a year, costing the service hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost traffic.

The company, ProtonMail, provides encrypted email accounts for users, and has been one of the most popular services of that type since its launch in 2014, as reflected by its Google search ranking: the company says it was placed “on the first or second page of most [relevant] queries including ‘encrypted email’ and ‘secure email’”.

In the autumn of 2015, however, ProtonMail’s ranking plummeted, from the first page to the fifth, tenth, and, by the following spring, nowhere visible at all. “All throughout spring 2016, we worked in earnest to get in touch with Google,” the company says. “We created two tickets on their web spam report form explaining the situation. We even contacted Google’s president of EMEA strategic relationships, but received no response nor improvement.”

The result of the collapse was ProtonMail’s growth rate dropping by a quarter for the affected months, something the company estimates cost it “several hundred thousand Swiss Francs”. In the end, it tried going semi-public, sending tweets to Google directly accusing the company of “intentionally hiding ProtonMail from search results”.

That seemed to work, sparking a reply from Google’s then-head of webspam, Matt Cutts.

“After a few days,” ProtonMail writes, “Google informed us that they had ‘fixed something’ without providing further details. The results could be immediately seen.” The company’s site returned to the first page of results, where it has stayed ever since.

One potential cause of the collapse in ranking could be ProtonMail’s site moving domains, from protonmail.ch to protonmail.com. Such transfers can cause the collected authority attributed to the site to be lost, forcing site owners to start afresh. But regardless of the cause, ProtonMail argues that the event demonstrated the existence of “search risk”.

“The danger is that any service such as ProtonMail can easily be suppressed by either search companies, or the governments that control those search companies,” it writes. “This can happen even across national borders. For example, even though Google is an American company, it controls over 90% of European search traffic.”

“This episode illustrates that search risk is serious, which is why we now agree with the European Commission that given Google’s dominant position in search, more transparency and oversight is critical,” it added.

Google declined to comment, but confirmed to the Guardian that after ProtonMail’s report it was able to find and fix something affecting the search results.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th November 2016 09.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010