Your Online Footprint

The CEO of Google has suggested that once you leave college, you may want to change your name to distance yourself from all the dumb things you did as a younger person and can’t erase from the Internet. Of course if you change your name, you won’t be associated with any of the positive things you did either.

Internet Footprint

What does your Internet footprint look like?

I’m not sure we are going to see a bunch of people changing their names, but I do know that a lot of people are dealing with an online PR problem.  If you haven’t searched Google for your own name, you really should.  Ask yourself, “if a prospective employer, date, graduate school, business partner or life insurance underwriter saw these results would it help or hurt my chances?”

Be careful what you post

Obviously the best way to control what shows up on the web is to be careful what gets put up in the first place. Do you really want your name associated with a heated forum argument about drug legalization?  Or a better question….10 years from now, will you want your name associated with that argument?

If that seems a bit far-fetched, lets say you are studying a new area of technology and learning a lot by asking questions in forums.  Five years from now, you may be an expert on the subject, but if someone searches for your name are they going to see you asking a bunch of silly beginner questions?

Here are some tips for controlling what gets put on your permanent online record:

  • Ask yourself, “would I mind if this came up on the first page of the search results for my name”.  If not, then maybe you should put it online–or at least not under your full name.
  • Consider using a fake name or just your first name.  If you want to participate in online interactions, but aren’t sure if you want it associated with your name, consider doing it under an alias that isn’t going to be found when someone searches for you.
  • Don’t assume you can delete something.  Even on your own website, once something is posted it may be on the Internet for good. There are things I posted to my website in 1998 and then thought better of that I cannot wipe from the Internet.

Even things that you don’t mind people knowing need to be run through a filter asking, “Do I want everyone in the world to know this–forever?”  I heard a story (that I haven’t been able to verify) that illustrates what I’m talking about.  Bill Gates gave money for a building in honor of his mother and it was named after her maiden name.  A few weeks later, his credit cards were hacked.  Keep in mind that any one piece of information you post online may be harmless, but you need to see it in the context of all the information that is available about you.

Using two online persona’s can be a simple way to separate the things that you want associated with your name (your brand) and the things that you don’t.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you are trying to hid something, but if someone searches for your name, it might be better for them to find your resume and other professional work as the top results rather than pages and pages of arguments about the back story in World of Warcraft.

If you put all your online activities under your real name, you may find you have very little control over what shows up first in Google.  You don’t want to clutter the search results with pages that aren’t important that may outrank pages that are.

Plan your online profile

In the same way you need to be careful to control negative or potentially damaging online footprints. You can actively create a positive online profile.  Here are some ways to do that:

1. Create multiple profiles under your name

A simple page at a number of different websites that functions like an online resume can be a useful way to build up your online presence.  Be realistic about how often you plan to update.  An online resume may only need to be updated once or twice a year.  If that is all you have time for, don’t make it look like a blog, update for a month and then abandon it.  Some sites that might be worth creating a small website on are: WordPress, Blogger, LinkedIn (public profile), Twitter (if you plan to update regularly), Tumblr, About.me, chimp.mp, Google Profile, public Facebook page, etc.

2. Get your own domain

Your own domain will cost $10 to $30 per year.  Chances are it will rank high for your name and gives you a permanent home on the Internet regardless of what free services come and go. Try to get something as close to your name as possible.

3. Interlink your profiles

One of the best ways to push your websites to the front page for your name is to interlink them. If you have a WordPress.com site, be sure to link it to all of your other websites and vice versa. I’ve gotten to the point that 9 out of the first  10 entries for my name are about me and are on sites that I control. Most of this was done simply by interlinking my different blogs and websites.

4. Post what you want people to see

Simply having your sites up doesn’t really help you much.  You are going to need to write about things that you want people to associate with you.  Think about the types of things a prospective employer would consider “good signs” when they search for your name.  If you work in management, a few essays, thoughts or posts on management theories would probably be helpful.  If you are a software developer, some code examples, discussion of different programming languages or a write-up about your experience on a particular software project might be useful.

5. Check to see what others are seeing

One guy was having a terrible time finding a job.  Every time he got called in for an interview it would go exceptionally well, but then he’d never hear anything back from the company. When he called in to check they had given the job to someone else. Finally he did a search for his name on Google.  To his horror he found that the first page of results were about the trial of a child molester that shared his name.

Assume that prospective employers are going to search for your name and if you have some situation like the guy mentioned above, be sure to be proactive with something like:

When you do a search for my name in Google you are going to find a lot of articles about someone who has the same name, but is now in prison.  I just wanted to let you know that isn’t me.

You might even consider using your middle name or initial in most of your online footprints if you have an extremely common first and last name and let people know that if they want to look you up online to search with your initial so they will get the results about you instead of others.

Keep in mind that some search results are different depending on where you are searching from.  It might not be a bad idea to have some friends in various parts of the country do some searches for your name and see if anything problematic comes up.

6. Get rid of bad content

If despite your best efforts there is something in the search results that is embarrassing, there are two ways to deal with it. One way is to fill the web with enough other popular content to push it down in the results where it is less likely to be seen.  The other is to get it removed–or removed as best you can.  It is going to be impossible to remove a popular embarrassing picture of yourself from the Internet.  No matter how hard he tries Michael Phelps isn’t going to be able to get rid of his drug picture.  However, Phelps has so many other pictures on the Internet that you have to go really deep into the results to find the embarrassing photograph when searching for his name. You can do something similar by creating sites, profiles and photographs for yourself at various websites and resume services.  It may take some time, but it is possible.

Sometimes people overlook the simplest method of getting content off the web–asking the person who posted it to take it down.  If it is someone who hates you, this probably won’t work.  Some people actually hire firms that “clean the web” by contacting people who posted things embarrassing to their client and getting them removed either by asking, paying them money or threatening lawsuits.

Obviously the best action is to avoid having negative things published about you in the first place, but that isn’t always possible.

7. Don’t forget about current employers

Don’t forget that your current employer may be watching your online profile as well.  I have seen companies seriously look at letting one of their top managers go because he kept updating his online resume and indicating that he was looking for new job offers.  I’ve seen other people who were fired because they called in sick, but posted on Facebook that they went fishing–forgetting that their boss was one of their online friends.

Conclusion

Taking a bit of time to think long-term about the footprints you are leaving on the web may save you years of grief down the road.  You don’t have to be terrified about privacy issues–just use a little common sense now so you don’t regret what people are reading about you in the future.

Comments

  1. says

    These are great tips, especially for people who are going out into the job market and want to look professional. I bought my own domain and started interlinking and looking forward to taking over the entire first page for my name :)

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