Conspiracy or cockup? Google hid ProtonMail’s encrypted email service from search results

The jury is out.

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Conspiracy or cockup? Google hid ProtonMail's encrypted email service in search results

If you’re reliant on Google to bring you much of your web traffic – and let’s face it, most websites are – then things can go south pretty quickly if you disappear from Google’s search results:

Andy Yen, co-founder of ProtonMail, writes:

By the summer of 2015, ProtonMail passed half a million users and was the world’s most well known secure email service. ProtonMail was also ranking well in Google search at this time, on the first or second page of most queries including “encrypted email” and “secure email”. However, by the end of October 2015, the situation had changed dramatically, and ProtonMail was mysteriously no longer showing up for searches of our two main keywords.

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ProtonmailProtonMail started investigating the issue in November 2015, but SEO experts were dumbfounded as to what had gone wrong. In spring 2016, ProtonMail privately reached out to Google asking for assistance, but received no response and saw no improvement.

At the same time, the European Commission formally accused Google of driving traffic away from its competitors by giving priority to its own products in search results.

Data collected by ProtonMail clearly shows that something went very wrong with their search ranking for the phrase “encrypted email” for an extended period of time.

ProtonMail Google Search Ranking for “Encrypted Email” (lower is better)

As ProtonMail’s Yen writes:

This was worrying news, because as an email service that puts user privacy first, we are the leading alternative to Gmail for those looking for better data privacy.

It was only when the company tweeted Google publicly in August 2016 that the search engine began to look into the issue.

And, within a few days, the issue was fixed. ProtonMail’s search rankings in Google – they had always been good in alternative search engines – immediately recovered and the service is now ranked #1 and #3 for ‘secure email’ and ‘encrypted email’ respectively.

Rankings fixed

There has been no explanation from Google as to what caused the problem.

Conspiracy or cockup? It’s impossible to say. But Google really should have responded much more quickly when the issue was first brought to their attention. Failing to fix the problem earlier will only make more people believe that it was intentional.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

7 comments on “Conspiracy or cockup? Google hid ProtonMail’s encrypted email service from search results”

  1. Simon

    DuckDuckGo doesn't seem to have a problem presenting Proton Mail…

  2. graphicequaliser

    Google must, by now, realise how much power they have over what the average user visits on the internet. It is quite possible that corporations and governments secretly conspire with Google execs to ensure their interests are protected and promoted, above less well-funded competitors. Google may well derive a lot of revenue from these secret dealings. Until money is removed as the sole motivation for various human activities, the world will be sick.

  3. MJE

    Am I surprised, in the moneyhunting capitalism driven by some "undisclosed" governments and mega-companies?
    Frankly NOT at all, and we will see this occur from time to time I'm afraid.
    So let's see if this comment will be blanked out… ;-)

  4. Max Pierson

    Ask a politically controversial question of Bing and Google. You will get the liberal pablum results from Google way more than Bing

  5. A. Schmidt

    Reason #26 why I don't use Google. I simply don't trust them to objectively show services which might compete with them. DuckDuckGo is my search engine of choice, and it doesn't seem to have any problem showing Proton Mail.

  6. Adam

    For those of us who really know, Google has been doing this consistently for 3-5 years. I first noticed signs of it about 5 years ago but was in full effect 3 years ago….and it is still happening. It may be competition but it also has to do with the fact that Google has tried to hide the fact they don't make the same kind of money off search that they used to. Once Oracle revealed the staggering amount of money that Google was making from Android (I think it was like $22 billion profit in a year), which the mighty Google tried to prevent from being released, giant corporations like Verizon & AT&T have taken notice. Until then, Google has been able to hide under the veil of Android. The reason may be competition but honestly I think their algorithm is just set to force businesses to pay for ads, ads that DO NOT work; they do work to exhaust your finances. Same thing with Facebook who continually squeeze your reach in order to force people to pay. Nowadays, when you post something on Facebook it will only reach about 10% of your friends and suddenly someone is actually paying for their post of them eating a taco, or going to the beach, in order to reach more of their friends. Google's algorithm limits all smaller businesses automatically. So, maybe it was competition but I really think it's just their "Super-Advanced Algorithm" ensures that if you are ranking and you are not a giant corporation, their algorithm is triggered, you will fall and you will be forced to pay. The giant corporations will always pay, it's the smaller businesses that Google has forced into eating the crumbs. Google tries to make it seem like their algorithm is so advanced but it's not, it just enforces limitations. Nowadays, you go to Google and there are 4 ads at the top, then local results (info gathered by 3rd party company and they have a deal with Google, where they get a percentage of PPC/ PPcall) and then usually a big corporation as a top organic result….most of the time, you actually have to scroll down to see the first organic entry. I have a ton of websites and have tested their mighty algorithm and it is not based on quality, I assure you, it's based on limitations. You may get good results when you are asking a generalized question but not if you are a business. In the future, Android will be phased out by the phone carriers….the real reason Google released a phone and then they will be back to having their search engine and the fall will begin…..not that they will go away, but they will no longer believe they are the Matrix. I know they changed their motto from "Don't be Evil" to something like "Try to do good, unless you can't" (I could be wrong on that), but their future motto might be "The karmic monster has come home to roost". Great job calling them out, most people have no voice…..Europe can do it but in the United States Google has too much lobbying power and has probably helped out the government more times than we can imagine.

  7. Thomas D Dial

    Based on a Tor anonymized search (for "encrypted email service") using DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and Bing, I am inclined to think Google innocent in this, and possibly bullied into artificially elevating the ProtonMail's importance by the prospect of adverse publicity, which they now have got anyhow.

    Ignoring ad placements:
    – DuckDuckGo showed ProtonMail's site in position #13; the first mention was at #3, a two year old Forbes article on ProtonMail.
    – Yahoo placed Protonmail's site at #4, just behind the same Forbes article
    – Bing placed it at #3.
    Google put it at #1 (now), just after the paid ads.

    I say this as a user of ProtonMail since it became available in beta, as well as a long time user of PGP through the Enigmail wrapper:

    The primary issue with both kinds of email encryption is that almost nobody cares enough to go to the bother of using it. Both ProtonMail and Enigmail, as well as PGP and End-to-End, Google's possibly dormant effort at encrypted webmail, are relatively easy to use, but more trouble than plain text email. They all require both senders and receivers to put forth a somewhat significant initial effort, and also minor additional effort each time they send or receive a secure email. That effort evidently is too much for widespread adoption, and may be too much to even generate the interest required to provide ProtonMail the high search ranking they consider appropriate.

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