Searching for Google’s Privacy Policy

As we know, Google refuses to place a link to its privacy policy on either its homepage or search results pages. It has been pointed out (thanks, Chris) that the California Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003 requires the operator of a commercial Web site that collects personal information about users to “conspicuously post its privacy policy on its Web site.” When asked about this by the NY Times, Google responds, in part, that “because the privacy policy is easily found by using the search box on the home page, we comply with this statute.”

I’ve already noted the cruel irony in Google’s logic that users are forced to use a service that tracks and records their activity in order to find information about how that service might track and record their activity. But how easily is Google’s privacy policy found by simply using the search box?

Google privacy policy searchLike most navigational search queries, if you know what you’re looking for, you can find it right away. A search for Google privacy policy provides a link to Google’s Privacy Center as the first result, and a link to the privacy policy itself as the 2nd result. Interestingly, this search has one sponsored result in the right-hand column, also a link to Google’s Privacy Center. (It would be interesting to know if Google prohibits bidding for these keywords.)

privacy policy searchNow, if you’re a little less specific, and only search for privacy policy, the top-most result (highlighted in a pale yellow) is a sponsored link for a legal documentation company selling privacy policy agreements (only $14.95!). The first and second organic results are the same as above: the Google Privacy Center and then the policy itself.

So far, Google seems to be correct that if a user searches for privacy policy, the should be able to find Google’s own policy.

Google search for However, we must recognize that not every user is savvy enough to know exactly what they are looking for. If Google wants to ensure that anyone with general privacy concerns has easy access to its own policy, then simply searching for the term privacy should also provide a link to Google’s policy. Not so. The search results for “privacy” include links to advocacy groups, Wikipedia, the Federal Trade Commission, and philosophical essays.

The first page of results even includes links to the privacy policies of Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo!.

But no direct link to Google’s privacy policy can be found.

Certainly it can be argued that this is a natural result of Google’s PageRank algorithm. But one wonders if the PageRank of the policies for MSFT, Facebook and Yahoo all exceed that of Google’s own policy. Seems unlikely. Heck, even the privacy policy for an e-mail marketing company (read: spam) shows up on the first page, but not the policy for the world’s largest search engine.

Some might also argue that if we forced Google to include a link to its own privacy policy within the results for a “privacy” search we would be messing with Google’s neutrality, with their attempt to merely reflect theuniquely democratic nature of the web.”

But Google regularly inserts particular results among certain searches. A search for George Bush includes a manually-inserted link to Google News. A search for Porsche Boxster includes links to Google images. And a search for Budapest includes a link to the relevant Google Map of the Hungarian capital. At the bottom of the general “privacy” search, Google even includes links to other Google products with privacy-related content, including blog posts and book results.

So, it seems Google sees fit to insert links to their other information services before (and sometimes after) the natural search results for thousands and thousands of search terms. Why not add a simple link to their privacy policy when the word “privacy” is searched? All it would take is a single line: Google’s privacy policy. (Worst case, just insert a sponsored result that links to your policy, as you do in searches for “google privacy policy.”)

Google often brags about how much they’re doing to protect user privacy. And they do quite a bit, for sure. Which is why I can’t understand why they are passing up this opportunity to do another good deed and simply make it easier for users to find, read, and understand their privacy policy.

UPDATE: A quick look at the other major search engines reveals similar results. Searches for “privacy” on AOL, Ask, Microsoft, and Yahoo! fail to provide distinct links to their own privacy policy among the search results (although, as noted earlier, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! include links in the page footer).

Note, however, that Google’s Privacy Center is the 4th result in Microsoft’s results for a search on the term “privacy.”


  1. I just wanted to say that I like that you fight for privacy. Too many people don’t realise the evil potential of Google. Keep it up!

  2. “But one wonders if the PageRank of the policies for MSFT, Facebook and Yahoo all exceed that of Google’s own policy.”

    As you know, search results aren’t determined strictly by PageRank, but include many factors. Google’s Privacy Center is at #11, which is not unreasonable.

    “But Google regularly inserts particular results among certain searches.”

    Those aren’t manual insertions. That’s what’s called “universal search”, including other *categories* on the web when their results rank high enough.

    “Why not add a simple link to their privacy policy when the word “privacy” is searched?”

    Well, it could be done in terms of a pseudo-sponsored link, as happens for the word “Jew”.

    But how much value is an ordinary person going to get out of policy?

  3. Thanks, Seth. You’re right on the ranking issue, and yes, the Universal Search aren’t organic results, but to an average user they likely appear as such. My point is that it wouldn’t take much to provide a Universal Search link to its YouTube privacy channel when a user searches for privacy.

    But positions like “how much value is an ordinary person going to get out of policy” are problematic. Perhaps its true that many people won’t read or properly understand a privacy policy. But if we take that position as acceptable, then not making the policy visible worsens the situation. A key step towards increasing people’s understanding of the privacy, data collection, etc is to provide them with more information, not decide to withhold it because some might not care or not understand.

  4. Actually, the Universal Search results ARE organic results – they’re algorithm-produced based on similar (not necessarily identical) calculations. when you say “A search for George Bush includes a manually-inserted link to Google News.” – it’s not a MANUALLY-INSERTED LINK. As in, Google didn’t decide that “George Bush” deserves a News link because he’s the President. It’s that he gets mentioned many times in recent news articles.
    They did decide that news links should appear at a certain threshold. But I don’t think that’s what you meant.

    Look at it this way – why should a search for “privacy” bring up Google’s privacy policy by mandate, while not on a search for “Google”? Of all the people who are searching on “privacy”, how many want *Google’s* privacy policy? And searching only [Google privacy] brings up “Google Privacy Center – Privacy Policy” as the second result.

  5. I was under the impression that there was some human editorial control over what search terms trigger additional “universal” results, and that it wasn’t purely based on a (human determined) threshold of results on the other property.

    All said, if Google wants to “make privacy easier,” I’ve pointed out some simple steps they can take to make their Privacy Center more visible.

  6. Google generally says it’s all just algorithms, excluding blacklists (which are human-maintained). But even so, the results like News and Images are not what you seem to want here. Again, they could do it as a pseudo-sponsored link.

    I find it a better argument that Google has these on their homepage:

    “Advertising Programs – Business Solutions – About Google”

    So I don’t see any reason not to have “Privacy” too.

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