Keep redacted information out of Google Search

When publishing documents and images on the web, you may unintentionally publish information beyond what is immediately visible to the human eye. In particular, information that you might not see, or that was intended to be redacted,  might be included in some document formats and visible to search engines.

Because search engines index public material on the web, including images, content that is not completely redacted can potentially be findable in search engines. Assistive technologies like screen readers can make this seemingly "hidden" content more easily accessible, and common image understanding techniques like optical character recognition (OCR) similarly make it possible to search for this content. 

Even though putting text in a tiny font, using a font color that's the same as the background the text is on, or covering text with an image may make something invisible to the human eye, these methods don't actually redact material in a way that prevents search engines from indexing it and making it findable.

Similarly, some document types include information in various ways that aren't immediately visible. They might include the document's change history, allowing users to see text that has been redacted or altered. They might retain the full versions of images that contain cropped or redacted information. There might also be metadata that's included in a file, which is not immediately visible, that may list the names of people who accessed or edited the file. 

All of this information can remain even when a document is exported or converted from one format to another. If you need to remove information from a file, it's critical that the information is removed completely from the file before that file file is made public.

Here are some best practices for how to appropriately redact information from documents that you don't want to be indexed and made discoverable via Google Search.

Edit and export images before embedding them

Google Search lists images that it finds across the web, both those that are on web pages or those that are embedded into various document formats. Embedded images are sometimes edited using only the containing document's editing tools. This can cause this redaction to fail when an image is indexed apart from the document. That is why it's best to edit images before embedding them into a document, not after. In particular:

  • Crop out unwanted information from images before embedding them into documents. Some document editing tools (such as word processors or slide creation tools) will maintain any uncropped images that you use in the public version of the document, so be sure to review the tool's documentation thoroughly.
  • Completely remove or obscure any text or other non-public parts of the image, as OCR systems may turn any image text seen into searchable text.
  • Remove any undesired metadata.

After following the suggestions above, export or save the updated images as non-vector or flattened image file formats such as PNG or WEBP. This prevents those parts of the images from being inadvertently included in a public document.

Edit or remove unwanted text before moving to a public file format

Completely removing any text you don't wish to have in the final version of a file should be done before generating a public document. Move to a public format that does not keep your previous change history. Here are more specific tips:

  • Use proper document redacting tools if a file needs to have information redacted. For example, avoid placing black rectangles over text as a redaction method, as this can result in the text still being included in the public document. 
  • Double-check the document metadata in the public file.
  • Follow the document redaction best practices for the format that you are using (PDF, image, etc). 
  • Consider information in the URL or file name itself. Even if a part of a website is blocked by robots.txt from crawling, the URLs may be indexed in search (without their content). Use hashes in URL parameters instead of email addresses or names.
  • Consider using authentication to limit access to the redacted content. Serve the resulting login page with a noindex robots meta tag to block indexing.
  • When publishing, make sure that the website is verified in Google Search Console. This allows quick removal action, should it be needed. 

What to do if unredacted or improperly redacted documents are indexed in Search

  1. Remove the live document from the website or location where you published it.
  2. Use the URL Removal tool for the verified site to remove the documents in question from Search. Use a URL prefix if you need to remove many documents. For verified sites, a URL removal generally takes less than a day. This prevents the document in question from appearing for any searches for redacted content. 
  3. Host the properly redacted document under a different URL. This makes sure that any newly indexed version is of the new document, and not an older version of the document (since recrawling of URLs and updating them in a search index can take a bit of time). Update any links to those documents.
  4. Contact any other site that may also be hosting the improperly redacted documents and ask them to take them down as well. Ask them to use the URL removal tool in their Search Console account, or use the Outdated Content tool to ask Google's systems to update the search results.
  5. Allow the URL removal requests to expire (this happens after the URLs were either updated in our search index, or after about 90 days).
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