I used to work in film processing/photo printing in a small town. At first, it was cool to feel like Nancy Drew and find out about people’s lives. But at times I felt like I was spying on private territory–personal stuff–and I found out more than I cared to know. If I knew then what I know now, I could have been my town’s Gossip Girl, sharing everyone’s secrets, making money off of a blog everyone in town would visit (all 5,000 of them), and blackmailing people into submission to my will. (Queue Ursula’s evil villain laugh.)
Our culture has shifted. We see people’s personal stuff all the time. We thrive on it. The combination of people sharing [their opinions of] everything + everything made available and archived online + hackers accessing cloud data = privacy is a limited commodity.
As a self-proclaimed “Internet Research Expert” I believe I have a special talent for finding just about anything about just about anyone online. Especially people who don’t really understand the gravity of their online activity.
When you do enough digging, the things you can find online about people is scary. Don’t know the address of your friend’s new house? Do your race results from the Color Run you did last year? LMGTFY. (Let Me Google That For You)
It’s all there, along with an accurate listing of your relatives. All available for regular guy Joe Schmo to see. And if he paid, he could find out even more than that. Of course, there are tons of people who are “off the grid” or have paid to have their information hidden, and they deserve kudos for their efforts. Paying for it is one way to go. But you usually don’t have to.
Most often the information available online is shared straight from the source (intentionally or unintentionally). Social media posts, review sites showing check-ins and shared reviews of businesses, Amazon public wish lists, and Pinterest boards showing style preferences. That information is usually harmless.
But sometimes it’s not harmless. Comments on news websites, forum posts about your tripped-up Ambien experience [REAL LIFE: I found this in a job candidate search], YouTube subscriptions and ‘liked’ videos, the list of “iffy” content is long. Unless you have a good handle on what may tarnish your reputation in the eyes of the viewer, it’s best to play it safe. You never know what may make or break you in a given situation.
[Small tangent: never post photos you don’t want the world to see. Especially with regards to your kids. Children who were born after social media exploded likely have childhood photos posted online. Have a little respect for what you post. That one of your kid on the toilet or naked in the bathtub? First of all – come on, nobody cares to see that. More importantly, he won’t want facial recognition software to pull that up when he applies for law school or a job in politics. Just don’t.]
There are two ways to manage your online reputation and what pulls up in a search engine:
1. Limit or delete the content.
2. Pump out better content that pushes the bad content further down the list of search results.
Here are some tips for how to limit or delete the content:
1. Search for yourself. Former names, full names, nicknames, misspellings, with a space, without a space, backward, forwards. Google, Bing, Yahoo, AltaVista, you name it. Search using every search engine out there. (Clear your browser’s cache, and open an “incognito” window so it’s not taking your location or search history into consideration.) Open every result that displays and take a look. Are these results displaying your best self?
2. Make note of results you can easily control/change, and highlight the ones that may take more effort. Start with the easier ones, like the social media sites you manage.
3. Log in to your social media sites, tighten up security settings, delete inappropriate content, and then assume nothing is totally private. Even though you’ve set to approve the tag in that photo before it shows on your page, that doesn’t stop your friend from posting it publicly to their page with or without a tag. Google+, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp, Blogger.
4. Close/delete accounts that are no longer active. Those old social media sites that you may not remember logins to? Try to log in and delete your profiles.
5. Ask site owners to remove you. If you’re mentioned in a friend’s blog or website and don’t want to be, ask to be removed. Contact the webmasters of other sites you don’t want your name on and request removal.
6. Change usernames/display names to be ambiguous. Get creative – real names as usernames are so 1997.
7. Then make a request to Google and request to Bing to update their search engine results. This doesn’t happen overnight. You also have to accept that you may not be able to be removed from some sites. In which case, you’ll want to begin phase 2, generate new content, or increase good content to push the bad results further down. You WANT this content to be seen and squeaky clean, so approach all of these items through the lens of utmost professionalism.
Here are some ways to increase your relevant presence online and bury the bad content:
1. Create separate social media accounts for your professional identity that can be public. Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube.
2. Start posting the types of content search engines LOVE to pull up first. Like social media activity and videos. Post a video about you with your name in the title. Host a professional Meetup group (seriously…it works). Do a little more research about the content that search engines love (relevant, fresh).
3. Purchase a domain, start a website or blog, and use your full name. Many people have professional portfolio pages. The site can be a simple, single page…maybe it’s just an updated resume/CV and a professional photo. Make sure it’s mobile responsive. Research how to optimize your content it so it’s easy for search engines to find. And set up appropriate site security.
4. Answer questions online. Search engines love posting answers because often people search with a question. Start a profile on a large, trusted QA-type website, like Quora.
5. Comment publicly with spell-checked, grammatically correct, intelligent posts in news articles, review websites, and on social media.
6. Guest post on a website or blog with LOTS of activity. Like a news site or local government site.
7. Use specific keywords in your content. If a specific search term brings up bad results, include that search term in your new good content. Post good content in multiple places with that search term to push the bad results farther down the pages of search results.
Moving forward, EDUCATE YOURSELF. Know that anything you post online will be attached to you. I’ll leave you with a quote from Warren Buffet, which applies online as well as in life. “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”