"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
Kurt Vonnegut – Mother Night
It's a myth that only job seekers need to worry about their online presence. Everyone gets "Googled" these days. Online daters check out that "match" who just emailed them. Potential clients check out lawyers, doctors, and psychologists online. Customers check out restaurants, beauty salons, repair services, etc. And, of course, employers check out potential hires.
It is no longer an option to monitor your online presence – it's imperative.
Even people who claim not to have an online image ("I only use email") might be surprised at what is posted without their knowledge. Fortunately, not all surprises are bad: If you've participated in a marathon or race, you might be surprised to find your scores posted online. Your photograph or name might appear in the quarterly newsletter of your company. A charity might post the amount of money you donated last year. A professional organization might have posted some photos of you attending a networking event. Your business or professional practice might have several 5-star reviews on Yelp. Maybe there's a picture of you building a house for Habitat for Humanity.
But not all surprises are good, and that's where you need to take action. As a CNN article says, what happens on the internet stays on the internet, and no one is immune – even police force candidates have been screened online for digital dirt.
What is digital dirt? Most people think first about that unfortunate party photo a friend posted on Facebook. And while that is a problem, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Digital dirt can also take the form of videos posted on YouTube, state and local public records online, poor reviews on Yelp or other consumer-oriented sites, or even newspaper interviews where you were misquoted. Lately, there's been a proliferation of sites posting mug shots-- even if you were found not guilty.
So what can you do about any digital dirt that might be lurking online? Start by investigating your current online presence:
1. Put your name in quotes on Google, Bing, and Yahoo search engines, and see what shows up. If you have a particularly common name, try adding your location, as in "James Smith Cleveland OH." If you operate a business or service that is under a different name, do a search for that as well. Check out Yelp, Citysearch, and Angie's List to start.
2. Take note of what you've uncovered, and categorize it as: Good (leave it alone); Neutral (ignore it/not worth worrying about); or Bad (action needed). Bottom line: Does your current online image reflect you at your best and convey the message you would want potential employers, customers, or clients to see? Here's a very thorough site that lists numerous ways to search the internet for your online presence and either "clean up or drown out" your digital dirt.
3. Note how many other people with your name show up on your search. Are these online "twins" easily identified as NOT you? Do they live in remote geographic areas relative to you, or work in completely different professions? If so, you're probably fine. People will not mistake the other person for you. If, however, they are an "evil" twin who does not have a nice online presence and might be mistaken for you, this falls into the "bad" category where you may need to take some action.
4. Register for Google alerts. Enter your name in quotes as well as your business name in quotes so that you can be sent announcements any time your name or business is mentioned online.
Now that you've assessed your image (or lack thereof) and maybe found some digital dirt, it's time to apply the three basic steps: Banish. Bury. Build.
1. Once you've identified your digital dirt, eliminate as much of it as you can. If you posted it yourself, get rid of it. Tighten up all your security settings and get rid of those "public" or "friends of friends" permissions unless the information is truly positive or neutral. If a friend has posted something about you or tagged you, ask them to remove it.
2. If you have posted something on someone else's site that no longer reflects your image or opinion, try to eliminate it. Ask the webmaster or blogger to take it down for you. If they won't, and you can't eliminate it, see if you can edit it. If it can't be changed, your next best bet is to bury the info – see the next step.
3. Don't use your real name in public groups like Meetup.com particularly if you're going to join groups which might be considered controversial or odd. Don't use your real picture there either.
If you can't eliminate the dirt, the next best thing is to bury it so it's not on the first page of the Google search results.
1. Remember that online twin? Bury them in the listings by building your brand (see the next section). The more information under your name, the further down on the Google page your twin will appear. But what if your twin is famous or has tons of online material that you can't get past?
One of my good friends owns a business helping executives build their brands as thought leaders in their industries. Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Alexander – which just happens to be the name of the famous poet who spoke at President Obama's inauguration. Guess what happens when potential clients try to search my friend online? They are overwhelmed with links related to the poet. To overcome that social media barrier she decided to use what has been her nickname among her students for years, "Dr. Liz."
2. If you run a business or service and discover some negative reviews, determine whether you want to respond to them or ignore them. Start by claiming your business on Yelp or other services so that you control more of the information. If you choose to respond to the negative post, stay positive. Ask if you can fix the problem. Perhaps offer a discount, refund, or free second visit, if appropriate. Apologize if it's called for, and state how you have remedied the situation for future clients/customers. If you do this, though, don't neglect the folks who wrote nice reviews. Offer something for them as well. Otherwise you might encourage more negative reviews, if people think that's the way to get a free visit or discount.
Now it's time to build your brand by actively adding information online with the theory that if you create enough good content you can override (bury) the bad.
1. Create a professional LinkedIn account. LinkedIn will likely be one of the first items that will appear in a Google search, so that is your quickest way to develop a positive online image. LinkedIn is rapidly becoming many recruiters' favorite site for candidates. Take full advantage of LinkedIn by joining groups, posting presentations, etc.
2. Purchase the URL for your name as in "BobSmith.com." Now a name like Bob Smith is probably long-gone, so if your name is common, consider a variation, such as "RobertSmithAttorney" or "RobertSmithTexasAttorney." The idea is to preserve your name for your own use. Your name is the most powerful brand you have at the moment, so maintaining ownership of it online is a good idea, even if you never plan to create a website. You can go to any URL provider site (such as GoDaddy) and use their search engine to see if your name is available. If not, the site will often suggest variations.
3. Consider creating a simple website (try WordPress for a relatively easy system) with your URL. Even if all you post is a professional picture, your resume (remove identifying info like street address and phone), and a short bio, this site will likely move to the top of the front page when your name is searched. You can use this place to post articles you've written, press mentions, awards you've received, or even that PowerPoint or YouTube video (professional of course) you created.
5. Take an active role on sites like Yelp. Encourage your satisfied customers to write reviews on the site and the quote those reviews on your business's website. Offer them a discount or other incentive to write a good review. Create a Facebook page and encourage your customers to "like" it.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON DIGITAL DIRT
Finally, if despite all your efforts digital dirt still exists that might concern a potential employer, customer, or client, it's best to address it up front and be honest. Tell them you are prepared to address any concerns they might have. Then create a story that explains the situation as neutrally as possible, take responsibility where it's due, and indicate how/why that would never occur again-- what you have learned and how you have changed since that time. If it's not your fault or it's a completely unfair criticism, say so. Most people understand that there are all kinds of people who post comments and reviews, and one or two bad reviews or ridiculous comments may say more about the person making the comment than you.
For more ideas about using social media professionally and in your job search, check out these blog posts: