Google is synonymous with search, and that means the search engine has a lot of power in influencing where users end up on the web. Apparently, TurboTax has been leveraging Google Search to hide its free tax tool to push users towards its paid options.

ProPublica (via The Verge) reports this week that TurboTax has been leveraging Google search to hide its free tier product from general search results. Apparently, Intuit has been doing this to all customers to hide TurboTax Free File. The product is, of course, still directly accessible and has even been advertised, but you’ll struggle to find it through Search directly.

This was done by using the robots.txt file on the Free File pages to instruct Google to leave the TurboTax product out of its search results.

The code in question, which can be found in a file called robots.txt or in an HTML tag, has to be actively added to a site, as Intuit has done. It is typically used on pages that designers want to hide from the open internet, such as those that are for internal use only. Without that code, Google and other search engines default to adding a site to their search results.

Of course, TurboTax’s paid tiers are still visible in these search results. This clearly intentional move simply hides the fully free product from everyone, including those who qualify for it. Interestingly, H&R Block does the exact same thing with its free tax filing product.

Both of the companies here are providing this free filing service as a part of an agreement with the IRS. To keep the IRS from opening its own free service for those who qualify, tax software companies commit to providing a free tier of service. It’s obvious, though, that these companies want to do what they can to steer potential customers to paid products instead. It’s also clearly working, as ProPublica explains:

The fact that TurboTax Free File is effectively hidden from Google could contribute to the low rate of use. While 70% of taxpayers are eligible for Free File options from TurboTax and other tax software products, just 3% of eligible taxpayers or fewer use them each year.

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Ben Schoon

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