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TurboTax Deliberately Hid Its Free File Page From Search Engines

The makers of TurboTax as well as H&R Block promised the IRS to offer free filing for many Americans. But they have kept Google from seeing it.

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Update, April 28, 2019: Intuit has changed the code on its Free File page so that the actually free version of TurboTax is no longer hidden from Google and other search engines.

This week, we reported on how TurboTax uses deceptive design and misleading advertising to trick lower-income Americans into paying to file their taxes, even though they are eligible to do it for free.

There’s a new wrinkle: It turns out, Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, is deliberately hiding the truly free edition — TurboTax Free File — from Google Search.

Intuit has done that by adding code on its site telling Google and other search engines not to list TurboTax Free File in search results.

“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.

Under the Free File deal, Intuit and other companies pledged to work “to increase electronic filing of tax returns, which includes extending the benefits of online federal tax preparation and electronic filing to economically disadvantaged and underserved populations at no cost.”

Intuit is the dominant player in consumer tax software, with market share reportedly in the 60% range.

We found that Intuit’s smaller competitor in the market, H&R Block, also hid its H&R Block Free File product from Google using the same sort of code. An H&R Block spokeswoman said: “We are proud that we have helped millions of Americans file their returns under the Free File Alliance program. … Our Free File Alliance offering, like all other alliance partners, is presented in the IRS site and easily reachable through the IRS, on HRBlock.com, and also by googling ‘FFA H&R Block.’”

But the Google results for that search do not directly link to H&R Block’s Free File landing page.

The Senate is currently considering a wide-ranging, bipartisan bill, the Taxpayer First Act, that would make the tax software industry’s Free File deal with the IRS permanent. Intuit and other tax software companies have long lobbied for the language in the bill.

Wyden, who is a co-sponsor of the Taxpayer First Act, said Intuit’s actions have undermined the program. “The IRS agreement with the tax-preparation software industry requires companies to work to increase the number of taxpayers who file their taxes for free,” he said. “Steering eligible taxpayers away from filing for free or blocking the Free File page from search results violates the spirit of the agreement and calls into serious question the justification for the program.”

The Senate is currently in recess, and the fate of the Free File provision in the Taxpayer First Act is unclear. Spokespeople for three of the bill’s other sponsors, Sen. Charles Grassley and Reps. John Lewis and Mike Kelly, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

An IRS spokesman declined to comment on Intuit but said in a statement, “Free File has been a successful program and partnership that's benefited millions of taxpayers. The IRS.gov/freefile page is promoted by the IRS as the only site where taxpayers can view all free offerings from the software providers.”

The IRS was criticized by its expert advisory council last year for “deficient oversight” of the Free File program.

Dozens of ProPublica readers whom TurboTax charged even though they were eligible to file for free have reported getting refunds by calling the company.

Update, April 26, 2019: Following publication of this story, an Intuit spokesman said in a statement that the company is “undertaking a thorough review of our search practices to ensure we are achieving our goal of increasing eligible taxpayers’ awareness of the IRS Free File Program and its availability.”

The statement added, “TurboTax offers two free tax filing products: TurboTax Free Edition and TurboTax Free File Program, which is part of IRS Free File. Our intent in implementing our search practices was to make clear the distinction between these products by educating customers so they could find the product they were looking for. We did this by generating original content and publishing answers to frequently asked questions about the IRS Free File Program and the TurboTax Free File product, and optimizing that content to rank highly in organic search.”

Update, April 29, 2019: Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., sent letters on Monday to the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission asking the agencies to investigate Intuit and H&R Block.

In the letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, she asked that the agency investigate whether the code used by Intuit and H&R Block “is designed to steer customers away from free filing and into the companies’ proprietary products.”

She continued: “Should the IRS find ProPublica’s reporting to be accurate, I ask that the IRS require refunds for all customers that paid for tax filing services that were otherwise eligible for free filing.”

In the letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, Porter asked the commission to investigate whether the companies violated the law against deceptive practices in commerce.

Send us tips: Do you have information about the Intuit, Free File or the tax preparation industry? Contact Justin Elliott at justin@propublica.org or via Signal at 774-826-6240.

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Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. To securely send Justin documents or other files online, visit our SecureDrop page.

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