But the most disturbing part of the experience was what came next: Somehow, very quickly, search results stopped showing the original story at all. As I recall it—and although it has been six years, this episode was seared into my memory—a cached version remained shortly after the post was unpublished, but it was soon scrubbed from Google search results. That was unusual; websites captured by Google’s crawler did not tend to vanish that quickly. And unpublished stories still tend to show up in search results as a headline. Scraped versions could still be found, but the traces of my original story vanished. It’s possible that Forbes, and not Google, was responsible for scrubbing the cache, but I frankly doubt that anyone at Forbes had the technical know-how to do it, as other articles deleted from the site tend to remain available through Google.
Deliberately manipulating search results to eliminate references to a story that Google doesn’t like would be an extraordinary, almost dystopian abuse of the company’s power over information on the internet. I don’t have any hard evidence to prove that that’s what Google did in this instance, but it’s part of why this episode has haunted me for years: The story Google didn’t want people to read swiftly became impossible to find through Google.
Google wouldn’t address whether it deliberately deep-sixed search results related to the story. Asked to comment, a Google spokesperson sent a statement saying that Forbes removed the story because it was “not reported responsibly,” an apparent reference to the claim that the meeting was covered by a non-disclosure agreement. Again, I identified myself as a journalist and signed no such agreement before attending.