Is Twitter allowing search engines access to protected tweets or not? Not, Twitter tells me, though the company probably needs to do a bit more to prevent this type of confusion in the future.
The LA Times reported yesterday about a “Twitter hole” that it believed allowed Google special access to protected tweets, tweets made from Twitter accounts where owners have deliberately chosen not to have their tweets be made public.
Not so, said TechCrunch. The so-called protected tweets that the LA Times was finding in Google looked to be those made from before particular account holders locked down their accounts.
I checked with Twitter and got back the official word from their press office:
The TechCrunch article seems to sum up the confusion pretty well. It seems that the LA Times piece references tweets that were public but later the user protected the account, thus all subsequent tweets are private along with the profile. The tweets prior to that time cannot be un-cached.
Google has not been given a key to the castle…so to speak.
I’m good with this answer except for the word I’ve bolded — that formerly public tweets cannot be uncached. That’s incorrect.
Let’s take an example. Let’s assume you started your Twitter account in March. You started tweeting publicly, then in July decided to be private. Twitter doesn’t try to protect any of your past tweets. In fact, it’s pretty clear about this in its help page on the topic:
If you have a public account and you protect it, all updates after the time of protection will be protected. Your profile will only be visible to approved followers, and existing followers will not be affected.
Please note that tweets from protected profiles will not appear in search results. People will still be able to find your account using the Find People search tool but only people you’ve approved to follow your account will be able to see your tweets. Also note that any tweets posted while your profile is private will remain private indefinitely, and tweets posted while your account is public will remain public indefinitely
But Twitter could try to protect those formerly public tweets. As best I can tell, if you lock down an account, Twitter does make ALL tweets (formerly public or not) inaccessible to everyone accept those the account holder has authorized to see them. That includes search engines like Google or a Twitter-specific search engine like Topsy.
Well, if Google can’t get in to tweets after an account has been protected, why does it show some? And why does Twitter say this will happen?
Google seems to rely on the last information for a tweet that it could see. So you tweeted something in March. Google sees the tweet and records it. If in August, you protect your account. Google tries to revisit your tweets as it does with any web page, to make sure it has fresh information. It can’t get to any of your tweets now.
The ones from August, it never saw them, since they were never public — so it doesn’t list them.
That tweet in March? It keeps showing the information from the last time it saw it. And apparently, it will keep doing this for weeks or months.
Google didn’t send me a comment about this (I did ask, and I might get one later today). But that’s just how I know Google works and can see it specifically working with some protected tweets I investigated today.
As for Topsy, they told me:
Topsy only displays tweets that were once public. The refresh button will make them vanish if the account is now private.
Back to Google. Eventually it should update its old copy of the tweet with what it currently shows to non-authorized visitors, a message that says “This person has protected their tweets” (you can see this for millions of people on Google now).
Twitter could speed that process along by explicitly blocking tweets from a protected account with a meta robots tag configured to remove the page from the index entirely and from cached copies being allowed (the NOINDEX, NOARCHIVE commands).
That wouldn’t guarantee that formerly public tweets are all taken private, of course. Once something’s put out on the public web, it’s very difficult to pull it back. But it could help and seems an easy enough change to do.
If you have a protected account, also keep in mind that those who follow you might retweet what you tweet to the world. If you’re that worried, make sure you pick your followers carefully and regularly keep them informed that you don’t want things retweeted. Otherwise, be prepared for your private tweets to leak out.