'White Pages' Websites Losing Search Visibility

As privacy concerns have grown, personal data websites, often built on exploitation and deception, have seen their Google rankings fall dramatically.

'White Pages' Websites Losing Search Visibility
  • Google has downgraded numerous information-broker websites that used to rank for individual name searches.
  • Many of these sites were deceptive, predatory or otherwise exploitative, as well as being highly templated.
  • Google is acting in response to increasing public concern over privacy but also seeking to to avoid legislation or regulation.  

If you have a highly visible presence on the Internet, you may not have noticed a shift. But for those with a lower profile online, searches for their names have begun showing less personal data. It is clear that Google has reduced the rankings of some information-broker websites that make a business out of displaying personal data.

Prior to the advent of the public internet, personal information was frequently published in printed directories – the "white pages": phone books that displayed names, addresses and phone numbers – which were often paired-with and underwritten-by yellow pages business directories that were issued in all population centers. But the transition from landline telephones to mobile phones saw an abrupt reduction in the publication of personal contact info, as phone companies decided not to publish directory listings for mobile phone owners.

As the internet grew, websites based upon various databases expanded very rapidly. If one owned a data set, or obtained public and private data sets, the barrier-to-entry for publishing that data online became very low. And monetizing that data in various ways, such as with banner ads, became attractive to many individuals and startups.

Arrest Records, Divorces, Religious Affiliations

Some of these sites were fairly innocuous, such as creating directories of people, with street addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. But some were less benign, such as those that published arrest records and mugshots. Others mashed-up data in ways never originally anticipated, producing results that can be astonishing and disturbing. Some of these sites, for example, publish court records, including marriages and divorces, property records, occupation information, religious affiliations, political party affiliations, and donations to political candidates.

Google began reducing the ability of mugshot websites to rank prominently, starting in 2013. Arrest records sites have likewise seen ranking declines. Beginning in 2018, some of the most notorious, predatory reviews websites were similarly sidelined by Google – these were websites engineered to elicit negative criticism and even defamation – and made a business out of encouraging unpleasant attacks on people and organizations. It is not surprising that websites such as Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board, were nefarious enough to warrant downgrading by the Google algorithm.

These companies arguably weaponized Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law intended to protect against liability for tech companies 25 years ago in order to facilitate online growth. Websites like Ripoff Report and mugshot/arrest-record websites hosted materials that devastated reputations, and then demanded fees from often-desperate victims to remove or mitigate the materials.

Search Rankings Crash  

Starting in 2019, there has been a sharp drop-off in the rankings of MyLife (mylife.com), one of the most obnoxious of the information-broker websites. MyLife profiles could include age, political party affiliation, history of home addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, employer, education, net worth, and relatives. The site also touted "arrest/criminal/court records, lawsuits, liens, or bankruptcies." Even a traffic ticket could trigger the display of a "criminal/court records alert" at the top of the page, insinuating a criminal history. The site seeks to lure the nosy into paying fees for background records or persuades the profile subject to pay a membership fee to mitigate the concerning content.

There's also a proprietary "reputation score" displayed on each profile like a grade or 5-point scale value. One of the absolute worst features is a personal reviews subsection that encourages other MyLife members to rate one another, and to leave review text.

MyLife has been around for quite a number of years, but started getting traction in Google search results for people’s name searches beginning in about 2017. No doubt the site iteratively evolved from dull information pages about individuals into a more effective layout, and they likely also pursued search engine optimization as a core promotion tactic. From 2018 into early 2019, the site had become even more visible, and consternation about the data displayed on the pages – as well as suggestions about criminal activities – caused increasing complaints and anger.

Then, in June 2019, something shifted in a major way for MyLife: Google’s core algorithm update was published and MyLife.com pages dropped off a cliff.

MyLife.com Visibility Index - across many keywords, the site lost top rankings in Google.

Source: Sistrix

Google generally does not acknowledge when they penalize websites, and they draw a distinction between penalties applied for breaking guidelines versus ranking losses due to algorithm updates. In the earlier demotion of Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board, the company did not confirm or deny that they had penalized those websites, leaving room for speculation. And, Google’s official announcement about the June 2019 core update only vaguely cites earlier guidance around "quality" as being a factor in any possible ranking changes:

Other types of websites were affected by the June 2019 update, including healthcare websites and some prominent news websites such as the Daily Mail. However, Google made a very telling statement in their April 2022 report on spam-fighting efforts in 2021. They mentioned, in passing, that they had also used "SpamBrain," their AI-based spam-prevention system, to "reduce the prominence of sites with exploitative removal practices" for name queries.

Both Ripoff Report and MyLife would fit within the category of "sites with exploitative removal practices."

I have helped displace MyLife content before for clients and I have consulted with people angry or irritated with the content displayed about them. I also assisted my wife shortly after we were married with removing her MyLife profile from public view after a negative review was posted by someone we suspect was her ex-husband. Since this was the sort of service I often do for clients, I documented the process with the idea of showing others how to do it.

MyLife: Dark Patterns and Deception

While MyLife enabled people to remove their profile pages from appearing on Google, the process was purposefully convoluted. It was also interspersed with ads promoting their subscription service, which seemed to imply that you needed to be a member in order to complete the removal process. Once the profile was "locked," I submitted a removal request to Google based on "outdated content" which caused them to drop her MyLife listing from the search results.

Even after "locking" her profile to render it unavailable and invisible, my wife continued to receive confusing emails from MyLife. They suggested her profile was still live, instilling fear that negative content would reappear and continue to impact her online reputation.

Email from MyLife to an individual that already locked her profile from view

Source: MyLife email copy

Our experiences with MyLife were not outliers; many other people found the website tricky and deceptive. Indeed, MyLife was investigated and sued a number of times for false advertising and predatory subscription-renewal practices. Even more dramatically, the FTC sued them for falsely implying that individuals had criminal and sexual offenses when they only had traffic violations. The regulator obtained a settlement agreement that required MyLife discontinue deceptive practices and pay a $21 million fine.

It's therefore not surprising that Google’s algorithms, demoting sites with exploitative removal practices, would sharply demote MyLife.com. The website is showing no sign of regaining its old rankings. Even though it still appears to imply salacious and exaggerated things about individuals, it's becoming a moot point as profile pages have dropped off the first page of search results for most people. With reduced Google visibility the site has largely lost its teeth.

BeenVerified has similarly lost rankings from 2019 to present:

Source: Sistrix

PeekYou has also lost rankings, along with PeopleSmart:

Source: Sistrix
Source: Sistrix

Spokeo, surprisingly, also suffered a downturn in overall rankings, but its situation does not appear to be as dire as those suffered by other sites in this space. Could this be because its removal practices are simple and easy? If so, why did it lose rankings?

Spokeo traffic less impacted:

Source: Sistrix

It could be these sites also lost ground due to the nebulous "quality issues," referenced by Google as a blanket answer for sites that have seen reversals of fortune over the last few years when core updates were published. The sites do sometimes give a low-quality impression, not least because they often make too-loose assumptions when connecting data. I often see people mentioned as "related" that have no relationship whatsoever, perhaps on the basis of having lived the same address at different points in time.

These sites are all highly templated, with the same information populated across many thousands of pages, clearly just regurgitated from endless databases. The pages have content that may be too similar to other pages targeting the same proper names.

In the cases of sites like MyLife, Ripoff Report and arrest records websites, Google’s algorithm clearly evolved to specifically reduce exploitative sites that cause harm. In other cases, a few data broker sites have been similarly affected while not employing exploitative removal practices, such as Spokeo.

Responding to Consumer Concerns

Data indicates that consumers are increasingly concerned about personal private information becoming so public and prominent. Google Trends shows that searches for “privacy” have been on a generally upward trend since at least 2015.

Google Trends: Searches for "privacy" in the United States

Could Google be trying to reflect the desires of consumers, who felt that the sites were unnecessarily harmful and unfair? Google has made a number to protect consumers’ privacy and security, such as their push to get more of the internet to adopt HTTPS, and their announcement in April of this year that one may request for them to remove personally identifiable information from Google search results.

Google’s move to allow people to remove personally identifiable information is a significant move, considering that many Silicon Valley insiders once pushed the philosophy that "information wants to be free."

Privacy concerns have increased worldwide, including in North America where survey respondents who say they are are concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy has increased from 56% in 2013 to 62% in 2020.

Google Protecting Itself

The cynical side of me does not believe that Google’s apparent change in philosophy is entirely altruistic. Consumer sentiment is trending against the unregulated sharing of personal information. With pressure from consumer interest groups and skeptical politicians, Google could be proactively scrubbing the presence of large swaths of personal information in order to avoid being forced to do so by legislations. Google’s willingness to remove defamatory content, for instance, despite its legal immunity under Section 230, has always seemed to me to be a strategy to avoid legislation imposing new privacy rules or revoking some of that legal immunity. That’s not to say that there aren't empathetic employees within Google – there certainly are. The empathy of Google’s employees for people suffering harm via search results is also likely a factor in their increasing scrutiny of these personal-information broker websites. The greater likelihood is that it makes good business sense to reduce their potential exposure to undesirable legislation, and also legal conflicts between the purveyors of personal data and the individuals negatively impacted by them.

Regardless of the behind the scenes calculations, Google’s moves signal a long-term downturn in the visibility of websites that publish personal information. A number of these websites have seen reductions in their rankings for personal name searches. Some of them were likely targeted by the SpamBrain policing for exploitative removal practices. And Google’s recent announcements that individuals may petition for removal of personal data such as addresses and IDs further points to an increasingly unified stance in favor of reducing personal data online.

This week, I spoke with an analyst at a company planning to launch a new product for scrubbing personal data off of the Internet. It seems like there could be growth in this area in terms of consumer interest. But there may be a reduced sense of urgency for many consumers if their personal data becomes less prominent in Google search results.

We are entering a time period where it is not good to be a data-broker website. There are a few websites that have appeared to benefit from the reductions in ranking experienced by MyLife, BeenVerified, PeekYou, PeopleSmart, and Spokeo. But it's unclear whether their uptick in rankings is merely short-term until the next wave of core updates finishes, or whether they can evolve into something that is palatable for consumers and the search algorithm.

Chris Silver Smith is the President of Argent Media. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.