TurboTax has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons. ProPublica, a non-profit independent newsroom that conducts investigative journalism, has revealed that Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, deliberately made its Free File page not appear in search results. TurboTax actively added code to its Free File webpage so that search engines such as Google could not add it in its search results.
Earlier, ProPublica had reported how TurboTax was using misleading advertising and deceptive designing to lead taxpayers away from IRS Free File, a service that allows taxpayers making less than $66,000 prepare and file their taxes for free. Many of those eligible for IRS Free File are low-income taxpayers who find it difficult to pay for tax preparation services.
Along with TurboTax-maker Intuit, H&R Block was sued by Los Angeles’ city attorney for obstructing people access to Free File. ProPublica reports that TurboTax and H&R Block “promised the IRS to offer free filing for many Americans. But they have kept Google from seeing it.”
ProPublica shares how TurboTax is hiding its Free File option from search engines:
“‘It’s deliberately saying: “Google, we don’t want you here. Do not bring us traffic,’ said Jared Spool, a veteran web design and user experience expert.
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.
‘Robots.txt is a big ‘No, don’t go any further’ sign on the web,’ Spool said.
The code on TurboTax’s Free File site says ‘noindex, nofollow’ — instructions for it not to show up in search results.
In contrast, the TurboTax page that puts many users on track to pay signals to Google that it should be listed in search results.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that he plans to raise Intuit’s misleading marketing with the IRS. ‘Intuit’s tactics to reduce access to the Free File program and confuse taxpayers are outrageous,’ he said.
Here’s the page for TurboTax’s Free File edition.
And here’s the code Intuit put in hiding it. (Special thanks to Larissa Williams on Twitter and Arkadiy Kulev on Reddit for pointing out the code.)
And here’s the main TurboTax.com page, which, despite the ‘FREE Guaranteed’ language, puts many users on track to pay.
It instructs Google and other search engines to ‘index,follow.’
An Intuit spokesman didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In exchange for the IRS promising not to create its own free, online filing tool, Intuit, H&R Block and other companies signed a deal to offer Free File options to lower-income Americans.
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.”
To make matters worse, the government is on its way to ban the IRS from creating its own free electronic filing system. By putting the IRS on crutches and dependent upon tax software companies such as H&R and TurboTax, the only losing side would be the taxpayers.