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Calling foul: Encryption service ProtonMail accuses Google of burying its search results

protonmail google search results
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Swiss email encryption startup ProtonMail has accused Google of hiding its site from search results, saying it “almost killed” the service.

In a blog post, ProtonMail co-founder Andy Yen explained that for the better part of a year, ProtonMail was hidden from search results for terms like “secure email” and “encrypted email.”

Yen said this raised suspicions at the company, which claims to be the world’s largest encrypted email provider. During the summer of 2015, it was ranked high in search results. That all changed around the end of October last year.

“ProtonMail was mysteriously no longer showing up for searches of our two main keywords,” he said.

The sudden drop in ranking led to ProtonMail’s income falling by 25 percent, it claims. The apparent alteration in search standing was particularly ill-timed for the company as it had just released a second version of its service, launched its mobile apps, and grown its user base to a million.

Related: Want to encrypt your email? ProtonMail is finally out on iOS and Android

This should have all, in theory, pushed up its rankings, but after consulting SEO experts, ProtonMail determined that Google had to be pushing it down the search results rankings. Yen and the team point to other search engines where ProtonMail was performing just fine, and added that it has never used any so-called “blackhat SEO tactics” or other shady methods that some websites employ to boost their ranking.

Below is an example of how ProtonMail ranked in August of this year in various search engines using the main search terms cited above:

protonmail-search-1

Attempts to get in touch with Google were fruitless, as the search giant’s president for EMEA strategic relationships did not respond. As a result, ProtonMail went public on Twitter, calling out Google for its supposed actions. The public outcry, according to ProtonMail, led to Google finally replying. It “fixed something” and ProtonMail was returned to its original ranking but there was no further explanation.

protonmail-search-2

Coincidentally this was around the same that Google was being penalized by the European Commission for antitrust violations, which centered around findings that the company lowered search results for competitors. Yen believes ProtonMail is a Google competitor because it is providing an encrypted email alternative to Gmail.

“Our goal isn’t really to shame Google or to force them to provide an explanation, it is more that we owe it to our users and supporters to be transparent,” Yen explained to Digital Trends in an email. He hasn’t had any contact with Google since the blog post was published.

He stated Google was a clear “anomaly” in this case as no other search engine ranked ProtonMail so low.

“That’s what made us very suspicious about this in the first place actually. Needless to say, we are monitoring all search engines very carefully now for this type of behavior.”