Tuta Mail's website ranking mysteriously restored after Google’s silence on downranking

Calling out the unchecked power of Google: We need accountability and transparency.

The Google Search problem is bigger than you might think: For two months the Tuta website was barely visibly on Google - while the tech giant simply remained silent, denying any responsibility.
For two months the website of Tuta Mail was hidden from Google search results. This significantly impacted our visibility, and despite repeated attempts to get in touch with Google, the tech giant remained silent. In April we decided to go public with the issue and submitted a complaint based on the DMA to the EU regulators so that, miraculously, on May 9th, our website ranking was restored. This incident underscores a much larger issue: the immense, unchecked power Google wields over online visibility and the potential for abuse against smaller competitors.

On March 7, 2024, Google inexplicably downranked the website of Tuta Mail in its search results. While Tuta Mail is a prominent provider of encrypted email services, focusing on security and privacy, our website was deranked for terms like “secure email” and “encrypted email” completely. The search results for our website was limited exclusively to so called “branded” search terms, e.g. search terms that included our brand name like Tuta, Tutanota, or Tutamail. In consequence, only people who already knew that Tuta existed were able to find our website via Google Search – any new potential customers were not able to find our encrypted email solution.

Faced with this immense problem with Google Search and a drop in visibility of the Tuta website by ~90% in Google's search results, we tried to get in touch with Google, both through official channels and on social media, but in vain. So on April 24, we submitted a formal complaint to the EU so that the EU could investigate whether Google’s actions in downranking a direct competitor violates the newly issued Digital Markets Act (DMA). We welcome the fact that the EU has already started an investigation against Google, Apple, and Meta in regards to whether these big tech companies are sufficiently complying with the DMA regulation. Not being legal experts here, but what Google has been doing to our website and what Apple is doing with their new App store policy for app developers, seem like obvious examples of malicious compliance.

Google’s silence and lack of transparency

The complete downranking of a website such as ours for non-branded search terms has raised serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of Google's search ranking processes. Despite our repeated attempts to reach out for clarification, Google remained silent. It was only after we went public with the information that Google issued a vague statement giving no transparency about why Tuta Mail was downranked to Reuters and other media, not to us, stating:

"Search ranking updates absolutely do not aim to preference Google products, or any other particular website. The email provider in question is easily accessible globally on Search," a spokesperson said to Reuters. "We appreciate the feedback and will look into how we can ensure Search continues to return the most helpful, relevant results."

However, nothing changed after this statement. Our website remained downranked, and we were still not able to directly discuss the issue with Google.

It was only when GCR, a media outlet focused on legal issues, reported on the matter signaling that the DMA complaint might be followed by a legal escalation from our side. Following this article, it seemed that Google took some action… Or was it a coincidence?

Miraculous restoration raises more questions

In any case, two days after GCR published their report, the Tuta website’s ranking was mysteriously restored to its previous position. While we are relieved that our visibility on Google Search has been restored, the lack of explanation or communication from Google is unacceptable and should not go unnoticed. This sequence of events raises serious questions about the fairness and accountability of Google’s practices, particularly towards smaller competitors like us who prioritize user privacy.

Position of the Tuta website on Google when searching for "secure email". Position of the Tuta website on Google when searching for "secure email" between March 1st and June 1st (a higher position is better).

Google’s unchecked power

Google claims that the March 7 search algorithm update was very "complex" and that it could lead to ranking fluctuations. This explanation is simply an attempt to shift responsibility from Google to the algorithm itself.

However, it is crucial to remember that Google controls this algorithm, even if they can’t fully foresee or understand the consequences of updates to it.

The company has the power to tweak and manipulate it as they see fit, and therefore, they must be held accountable for its outcomes. Blaming the algorithm is not an excuse for the lack of transparency and communication, nor does it justify the potential harm caused to our business.

This incident highlights a disturbing reality: one company holds immense power to decide who is seen online and who is not. Google’s control over search results in combination with its huge market share in search, particularly in Europe and North America, can make or break businesses, especially those like Tuta Mail that challenge Googles products by offering a privacy-focused Gmail alternative. This kind of power and potential for abuse extends beyond businesses and can impact politics, public health, and access to information as well.

The potential for abuse is enormous, and the lack of transparency only heightens the risk.

The need for accountability

It is crucial to address how Google’s unjust downranking of Tuta Mail and similar occurrences can be prevented in the future and what measures can ensure that tech giants like Google are held accountable for their actions.

Here are some key points we believe need immediate attention:

1. Transparent Communication

Google must provide clear and direct communication in a timely manner when such significant changes occur, especially when they impact businesses and their visibility on Google Search. Given the market dominance and Google’s monopoly on search, the European Union must make sure that European businesses get a fair share of visibility.

2. Fair Treatment of Competitors

There must be safeguards to ensure that Google does not unfairly target their competitors, particularly those offering alternative solutions that prioritize user privacy. If incidents like the downranking of the Tuta website in Google Search take place, there must be quick access to competent technicians on Google’s end who are able and willing to look into the issue and fix it – without public attention being required before any action is taken.

Fighting for a better web

In our digitalized world that is dominated by tech companies such as Google, it is essential to establish transparent mechanisms and oversight to ensure that no single entity can unilaterally impact the accessibility of services and information without any accountability. We are still waiting for a response from Google as to why our website was downranked for two months and what they are going to do to prevent such issues from happening again in the future.

We invite our users, all advocates of privacy, and the tech community as a whole to join us in calling for greater accountability from Google. Share your thoughts and experiences, and let’s work together to build a fair and transparent internet for everyone!

We are here to build a better web – one where your privacy is respected. But in order to be successful, we need your help against tech giants like Google. As the privacy-community grows, we will become stronger than big tech. Thank you for joining our fight for privacy and a better web!