Photos, comments, and videos posted on the Web may reveal more about you than you’d wish. But you can take control of your identity.
Not too long ago, a person had to flip through your albums to see your goofy pictures, drive by your house to check out where you live, and rifle through your video collection to unearth footage of you singing karaoke. But thanks to YouTube, blogs, Google Street View, and social-networking sites, all kinds of images and information about you may be available online, whether you put it there or not, for anyone―a mother-in-law, a date, a client, a potential employer―to see. (And, yes, they look.) The good news? With just a little keyboard time, you can decide what to delete, what to keep, and what to add. Use this guide to find out how to locate content that relates to you, remove less-than-ideal material, and create a Web profile that may enhance your professional and personal image in ways that those spring-break photos from 1992 never could.
Click on a Better You
Cleaning up your online profile―and creating the one you want―is as easy as one, two, three.
Step 1. Find Out What’s on the Web
Search yourself. Enter your name in the search bar of Google, Yahoo!, and Bing, three of the most widely used search engines. If you have a common name, like Anne Smith, do a few different searches, adding your current or past employers or your hometown to your name. “The first couple of pages of search results are what really matter,” says Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert and the author of Me 2.0 (Kaplan, $17, amazon.com). In fact, research shows that nearly 90 percent of search-engine users never venture beyond the first page. But if you have time, check the first five pages―in case they contain something ominous that could creep up in the rankings later on.
If nothing appears about you, that’s fine if privacy is your only concern. But if you want to create a good impression for clients, employers, or just the new acquaintance you met at the PTA, it helps to have favorable entries about your work (a newsletter mentioning a promotion, say) and flattering or at least neutral mentions of your personal life (your name on a list of volunteers at a community event) near the top of the list. If you see negative references (an embarrassing photo on a friend’s website, an angry rant you wrote on a blog), chances are others, including prospective employers, will see them, too. Indeed, one recent survey found that more than 80 percent of recruiters had searched the Internet for information on job candidates, and 44 percent had dropped someone from the running because of what they had found. Cathleen Graham, a recruiter for a New York City communications firm, nixed a top candidate after coming across a photo of him doing a handstand on top of a keg of beer. The photo, she says, “showed that his judgment wasn’t so great.”
Set up alerts. To get an e-mail when your name is mentioned in news stories, blogs, or videos, go to google.com/alerts and enter your name, your e-mail address, and how often you would like to receive updates (daily, weekly, as they happen). Again, if you have a common name, add your company, hometown, profession, or job title. This service won’t alert you to everything (Facebook entries, for example), but it will help you keep track of new information that might come up on search engines. Trackle.com is another useful tool for tracking personal information via alerts.
Step 2. Clean Up Content You Don’t Want the World to See
Start with what you’ve posted. Delete any negative comments or inappropriate photos and videos you may have posted or uploaded to sites like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, or other social-networking profile pages. If you blog using a platform like Wordpress (wordpress.com), you can edit that material, too. If you feel the need to start fresh and create a more grown-up profile, then generally you can delete your accounts. Methods vary among sites, so check the Help function for instructions. (Some sites may save your account profile for a couple of weeks before deleting it, in case you change your mind.)
Have others remove negative content about you. If someone has posted a comment, a photo, or a video about you on her Facebook or other social-networking pages, you’ll need to ask that person to remove it, because you probably can’t. Keep in mind that while you can’t delete another user’s photo on Facebook, you can remove the tag of yourself from the photo so it no longer shows up on your profile page or in your network.
If undesirable tidbits about you appear on a website or a blog, look for an e-mail address or a Contact Us link and ask for that material to be removed. Having trouble getting rid of it? Or just don’t want to deal with it yourself? Consider using a paid service, like ReputationDefender (reputationdefender.com), an online privacy-management company based in Redwood City, California. For a subscription fee of $15 and up a month, it will try to find and remove inaccurate, inappropriate, and slanderous information. One caveat: It can’t delete news articles or court records.
Reset privacy settings. Social networks like Facebook allow you to block groups (friends of friends) or individuals (a coworker, a nosy neighbor) from viewing particular content on your pages. Look under Help, Settings, or Preferences.
That said, you don’t need to create a sterile environment, even if you’re job hunting. “A Facebook profile humanizes the candidate beyond her black-and-white résumé,” says Graham. “Keep travel and family photographs―just don’t post status updates every five minutes or the recruiter may wonder if you’re getting any work done.” If you use an online professional network, like LinkedIn, always set your profile to be public. “The whole point is to have a professional presence online that recruiters can access,” says Tory Johnson, a career-services consultant based in New York City and the author of Fired to Hired (Berkley Trade, $14, amazon.com).
Step 3. Create a More Flattering Image Online
Claim your domain name―before someone else does. For roughly $10 a year, you can buy the rights to the URL of your name (annesmith.com, say). That way, your personal website, which ideally shows you in the best light, will pop up at the top of search-engine results. Visit GoDaddy.com or BlueHost.com to see if your name or a variation of it is available. If yourname.com is taken, go for yourname.net next, then .org.
Create favorable content. If you have a job or a business but don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up at linkedin.com. Opt for the LinkedIn URL with your name so it lands higher on search-engine results (you’ll have this option when you set up your profile page). For extra credit, create a Twitter account (twitter.com) and secure your full name as your “handle,” or ID. Then send out updates, or “tweets,” promoting your recent work or whatever you want the world to know about what’s going on in your life. Graham will follow candidates on Twitter “to get a real sense of their opinions and what drives them.” And, last, find blogs or online professional networks related to your field or personal interests and post intelligent and well-thought-out comments on them. Then you can shut down in peace.