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What Happens When They Google You? Managing Your Online Reputation

You may have seen some of the recent articles about personal branding and social media. It's getting a lot of coverage these days as companies use social media and networks to reach out and build communities of customers. Building reputations these days is not only about meeting people and doing good work, but also includes having a presence online. And it's not just for businesses – all of us as individuals, who work, go to school, and play online, are developing profiles and other digital artifacts that collectively become our online presence.

Benefits of a Positive Online Presence

With 750 million active Facebook users and more than 20 million people using LinkedIn, chances are you already have some involvement in creating a social media presence and your own online identity. There are of course many other social media and networking systems (i.e. Twitter, Google+) and additional ways to "be" online (e.g. personal websites, blogs). All of these efforts work together to represent you online. So then why is managing this online presence important?

  • They are (or may be) Googling you. Reports from [PDF] and Cross-Tab indicate that a majority of recruiters are searching for applicant information via Google and finding that online reputation plays a role in hiring decisions. A recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, however, found that this trend may be on the decline and that while some employers do use social media for screening purposes, most do not. While opinions on this are mixed, if there is a chance that the companies you are interested in are looking and screening online, it makes sense to build your reputation there. College admissions offices are also using social media and developing their own online profiles to connect with and recruit prospective students. Take a look at an infographic from illustrating How Facebook is Reshaping College Admissions.
  • Having an online presence opens up opportunity to participate. In an online course you will likely create a profile of some kind that includes information about yourself and maybe a photo and links to external sites. You are creating an online presence there, and joining your classmates in that virtual space. Having an online identity also allows you to join other groups online through your participation in discussions, posts, and networking activities on public sites. Your online presence represents you in all of these spaces and is often a required first step when becoming part of an online community.
  • A positive online reputation demonstrates communication skills. According to personal branding expert Dan Schawbel, "we are seeing a new type of skill emerge based on a professional's online influence." The communication and reputation building skills that come with successfully managing social media accounts can be attractive to employers whose positions require these soft skills. 
  • Your online reputation may eventually replace your resume. Schawbel predicts that we are moving toward a place and time where resumes (traditional versions), and maybe even job boards, are unnecessary. Recruiters are already expanding their methods to fill open positions. Recruiting and placement firm CEO, Inc. declares that "job boards are on their way out" with both employers and job seekers turning to other online communication venues to connect. Having a professional online reputation and active professional network may allow employers to find you.

Tips and Techniques

Managing your online reputation is becoming an important skill, especially for those who are involved in professional and job search activities. Being proactive and taking steps to create and manage your online presence allows you to have some control over how information about you is presented, instead of leaving it completely up to search engines to decide.

  • Do some housekeeping. Google yourself and have a friend Google your name as well. What kind of information is the most prevalent in the search results? There are basic guidelines available for cleaning up your online profiles that include deleting inappropriate pictures and posts, as well as updating privacy settings. There is also a lot of advice on selecting professional profile pictures. US News provides a list of tips that includes not only how to choose, but also where to post. Mashable's Zachary Sniderman advises you to "make sure you are updating your social networks on news and events that you want to be known for."
  • Create your own social media strategy. Be thoughtful and purposeful in how you approach the use of social media. Decide which sites you will use and how you will use them to build your reputation. Develop habits based on this strategy and avoid things like venting and posting inappropriate comments online. ResumeBear includes these and other tips focused on online job seekers. This site also warns against "spreading yourself too thin." Part of your overall strategy should be keeping your profiles up-to-date, and this can be time consuming with multiple sites.
  • Determine your audience. Go beyond just eliminating questionable pictures and posts – take some time to think about all of the possible audiences for your online information. Are you building a career or looking for a job? Retool your profiles to target the information these audiences may be looking for, focusing on your "professional self." You may decide to create separate accounts for personal and professional use or to adjust current settings to control what is public and what is private. Social media consultant Amber Naslund reminds us that personal and professional profiles "all get lumped into the same basket" where search engines are concerned. Realistically, it can be difficult to segregate the two, and does take some work to manage. 
  • Get organized. Decide on one account or site that will serve as your social media hub. This is the one URL you would then use on applications, sign-up rosters, in your email signature, etc. and give to anyone interested in finding out more about you. You might go with an account you already have as your central profile, or use a free service like or to create one simple landing page that is customizable and includes links to other profiles of your choosing. These sites can serve as virtual business cards.
  • Check your settings. Each system has a default of some sort that you may want to tweak. These settings allow you to determine what information is publicly available, as well as send you notifications about what others are posting about you. Google provides some quick tips for monitoring your online identity, including setting up Google Alerts. Default privacy settings change over time and have been somewhat controversial when a system such as Facebook changes its settings, and its users' settings, without notifying them. Be vigilant and monitor your accounts regularly.

The lines between professional and personal online personas are blurring as we engage in different types of activities and join diverse conversations via the Internet. While search engines do what they do with analytic formulas, there are steps we can take to ensure that the information the engines draw from presents what we want others to see.

Have you made any changes to your own profiles or how you use online accounts to present yourself? Share your experiences and recommendations with us here.