This can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
Lori Randall Stradtman, author of Online Reputation Management for Dummies, tells what she calls a “geek joke:” Where do you hide a dead body? Answer: On the third page of Google results.
That quip helps explain the increased number of players in the field of online reputation management. Reputation.com, Reputation Changer, Big Blue Robot, Metal Rabbit Media, are some of the outfits that promise to hide negative information that comes up on Google searches about you or about someone else with your same name.
They also work to make your preferred online profile float to the top of search results in order to boost your personal or corporate brand. Most of these companies charge fees that start at $5,000 a year. For companies, celebrities or high-level executives who don’t have in-house staff managing their online reputations, it may be worth the cost.
But what about the rest of us who want to make sure that potential employers and customers find the online content we want them to find? The leading company in the field, Reputation.com, charges individuals as little as $399 a year. But that still may seem steep to some. A one-year-old New York startup, BrandYourself.com, offers an easy-to-use do-it-yourself online tutorial that will put you through the basic steps of reputation management for free. For people with more serious problems, like a past legal difficulty or an article from a reputable source that says bad things about you, BrandYourself charges a relatively low fee of $80 a year to wipe your slate clean.
But there is plenty we can do ourselves without the help of outsiders. I talked to author Stradtman and to the heads of Reputation Changer, Big Blue Robot, Metal Rabbit Media and BrandYourself and pooled their wisdom to create the list below. What the advice comes down to: Create your own content and optimized profiles, to push offending content down to that proverbial third page in Google search results.
Note: This list is aimed at people like me, who are relatively unsophisticated Internet users.
1. Search yourself
Do a Google search for your name and also a search for your name in Google Images. Do set up a Google alert on your name to keep track of any new content. You can have notifications mailed to you once a day, so as not to overwhelm your inbox.
2. Buy your domain name.
This costs $12 a year to do on sites like GoDaddy. Opinions vary on how much effort, and money, you should put into this. Patrick Ambron, CEO and cofounder of BrandYourself, recommends snatching up lots of domain names—patrickambron.com, patrickambrononline.com, patrickambronblog.com. “The more you get, the better,” he says. Personally, I think this is excessive. Better to pick one domain name and put some effort into creating content that will live on the site. You can write a short bio of yourself, a story from your life, and include your CV. This is also a place to post interesting articles and your own commentary about them.
3. Put all your content in one place.
There are a number of sites that let you do this now, including Tumblr, WordPress and About.me. You can also “apply” your domain name to these sites, which means that anyone who goes to patrickambron.com will be routed to your Tumblr page or your WordPress page. That’s convenient because Tumblr and WordPress offer nicely designed templates where you can set up what looks like a professionally designed website without having to hire a designer.
4. Join social networks.
Even if you don’t feel like you have time to be active on these sites, do join them and take the time to fully fill out the profiles. As most of us know, the major sites are Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+. Though you don’t hear a lot of people chattering about Google+ these days, author Stradtman predicts the site will gain in power over the coming years in part because it is a Google product so Google will favor content from there in searches. If you can make the time, also join Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube and possibly others. You don’t have to be active but don’t be completely dormant either. Add new content at least once a month. That can be as simple as attaching an article and writing a short comment about why it interests you.
5. Optimize your presence on these sites.
Do fill these sites out as fully as you can, customizing the URL when you can and repeating your name where appropriate. For instance, on LinkedIn you can scroll down to where it says “public profile” on your profile page, and edit the URL. Instead of saying something like http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=30269383&locale=en_US&trk=tyah, you can set the URL to read http://www.linkedin.com/in/susancadams. Also be sure to use your full name and not a nickname or slogan you think is catchy. Another important trick: Most websites give you the option of linking to other social media sites. Do this. It will make your online presence stronger.
6. Keep private things private, while assuming nothing is truly private.
Even my 16-year-old knows that it’s unwise to post pictures of himself chugging beer or dancing shirtless, but he also knows he can’t control the pictures other people post of him. You can, and should, put privacy setting on all content you want to share only with a select group of friends and family. However Facebook and other sites are constantly changing the rules about how much you can protect your content, and your friends can forward embarrassing pictures of you without your consent.
All the experts say you should never post any pictures of yourself that you don’t want the world to see. What about my friend who posts frequent Facebook shots and videos of her adorable one- and four-year-olds, sometimes naked and playing in the bathtub? Stradtman says this is a bad idea because those pictures stand a chance of popping up when the boys grow up. I find this difficult to believe, not to mention depressing. An alternative is to construct two Facebook profiles, one for outsiders that emphasizes your educational and professional accomplishments and another for your intimate circles, with the most private settings you can find. I confess I would find it difficult to manage two Facebook accounts, though I see the wisdom behind the idea.
If someone else posts a picture of you on Facebook that you find embarrassing, remove the “tag” that identifies it as you. Also don’t hesitate to ask others to take down pictures of yourself that you think could compromise your reputation.
Ambron’s partner at BrandYourself, Pete Kistler, was motivated to start the company because he had a bad personal experience. When he was having trouble landing an internship, back in 2008, he discovered that a Google search on his name produced a Pete Kistler who was a convicted drug dealer. Unable to pay for a reputation management firm, he teamed up with Ambron and taught himself how to set up multiple websites and to create content that would drive the drug dealer Kistler down in the search results. That is the key to managing your reputation online: Create your own domain, establish a clear, fleshed-out presence on multiple social networking sites, post to each of them at least once a month and keep monitoring the web for unflattering photos or mentions. If they come up, do your best to bury them with positive content.
This can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
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