Cleaning Up Your Online Profile
Your worst nightmare has come true. Mr. and Ms. Potential Future Employers have sent their hack-crazy IT guys on a mission—find out about you and report back with all the juicy details. Their first target: Facebook. Or MySpace, Bebo, or any other social networking site that
has snapshots of you pole dancing topless in red-Solo-cup-double-fisting glory, with the requisite Sharpie marks proclaiming your love for farm animals still legible on your forehead (that was one helluva night, eh?). You shouldn’t have fallen asleep with your shoes on, no, but more importantly you definitely shouldn’t have allowed your kindly friend to post this disreputable version of you on the internet. Think about this: a recent CNET article stated that one in five employers use the internet to research job candidates. But don’t wig too much. We’re all human and employers know that. Going crazy and trying to slash and burn your digital past isn’t necessary. Instead, let’s just see where you stand online so that you can put your best foot forward on the job-hunt (and avoid any unnecessary trouble once you're employed).
Now is as good a time as any to perform a thorough spring cleaning, so here are some of the places where your name may pop up on the 'net, as well as solutions for taking control of your online identity:
Social Networking Sites
Jeff Kirsch, Vice President of D.C.-based NGO Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said that they have recently started to use the internet as a background-checking tool. “We’re not looking for anything specific, but rather seeing if there are any ‘red flags’ that should concern us, or tell us something that should be checked out with the applicant. Raving about drugs and alcohol, for example, would be a problem for us.”
Underhanded? Perhaps. But it does happen, and you can minimize your chances of preemptive elimination with a quick revamp. This site and this list of dos and don’ts have good advice on how to enjoy social networking sites without risking your future. It helps to review your profiles with the discerning eye of your employer. Don’t just de-tag those incriminating pictures—remove questionable wall posts/slideshows, as well. Kirsch elaborates, “Friends complaining that the person is always late or unreliable would make us take notice. And while we probably wouldn’t make a hiring decision just on the basis of something we saw on an applicant’s site, it seems to be another way of getting a fuller picture of an applicant in whom we’re about to invest a lot of time and energy.”
Making a profile private is easy. We all know those irritating MySpacers who we can’t stalk because their profiles are set to private. Well, they’ve got the right idea, and probably the right job, so take a clue—the privacy option is under “account settings”. The only people who will see a private profile are the people you add, and everyone else will just see your picture, so opt for the fully-clothed shot. On Facebook, the "My Privacy" on the top right tab has a long list of savory anti-stalk options, allowing you to control who can and can’t see every aspect of your profile, or to create a limited profile to display to non-Facebook friends.
Needless to say, it’s really up to you to decide how private you need and want to be. If you are applying for a job with the government or a very conservative bank, for example, you may have greater concerns than others about employers or co-workers viewing your profile and pictures. But even if you're not that concerned, there's really no way to justify missing out on an opportunity because you refuse to take down that profile pic of you killing a keg stand—just be smart and utilize those privacy settings!
Some of us use blogs to update the family on our cross-country travels; some of us want friends to see how hot we look in our new jeans; and still others use this new digital phenomenon as an online diary to try and sort out those pesky existential dilemmas (I personally have at least one a week). However you use the blog, be smart about it. For example, if you’re applying for a job with the Wal-Mart Corporation, political rants about the criminal nature of capitalism are probably going to raise a red flag. Same goes for your derisive blog about the “no-talent-ass-clown” in HR who interviewed you for a job yesterday. Search keywords and key phrases that may be an employer turn-off (“lazy,” “late,” “tequila bender,” “Yanni’s amazing new EP,” various curse words), and try to avoid egregious bad-mouthing of former employers.
“Google bombing” does not involve drinking with loads of nerds. Rather, it is a way of manipulating Google search rankings by having the same anchor text—e.g., your name—link to a specific page from loads of external sites. It is also the reason why Googling “miserable failure” used to bring up George Bush’s bio.
Affecting Google rankings is no easy task. Whole books are devoted to the subject of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and major Internet companies spend millions of dollars trying to figure out how to move up in the search. Before you even think about going into battle with the rankings, make sure it’s worth your time first. Google all variations of your name and nicknames and see if find anything you’re not happy about. If there is nothing unsavory, or if your name is common enough to render you anonymous for search purposes, then you are in the clear. Some of the techniques that we suggest below can have benefits beyond the rankings, but just make sure you know what your goals are going in.
6 Ways to Improve Your Google Presence
Contact webmasters and fight for your good name. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act says that before a company can sue a website for using copyrighted material, it must first ask the website to take it down. In essence, it is the reason YouTube can exist. And just as NBC can tell YouTube or Metacafe to take down Episode 18 of The Office, you can contact webmasters and request that they take down material that you do not want to appear on their site. You may not have as much legal leverage, but most webmasters are accommodating people and will honor your request. So if your roommates thought it was hilarious to tag your name and the phrase “superman that ho” on pictures they posted on Urban Dictionary, get out there and clean the mess. Then retaliate in an aggressively inappropriate manner. In addition…
Tell your friends to respect your online identity. Rumor has it that virtual defamation is not the dope, fresh, chill thing to do. Tell your buddies that pictures of you pounding Keystones in a tee shirt that says “Stop Snitching” do not need to be tagged on Flickr, or any other site for that matter. After all, that behavior is so antithetical to the “stop snitching” code. If they are really your friends, they will understand why you are acting like such a dingus.
Join professional social networking sites. Why wouldn’t you want to be a member of a site called Doostang? The answer is that there’s no reason you would not want to, because it is a hilarious name. LinkedIn is the crème de la crème of the online career networks, and Ryze has a rapidly growing user-base. Profiles on these sites will rank high in searches, and you don’t have to worry about the type of unflattering material that might crop up on purely social sites like MySpace and Facebook. That said, now that Facebook has added its public searching listing, using your privacy settings to submit your basic profile info (name, picture, school) to search engines may be an easy way to bring back another non-incriminating result.
Create a nameplate and network it. A nameplate is basically an online business card with a URL taking the form of www.yourname.com. Oftentimes, freelance writers and designers will create nameplates as a useful portfolio of their work, but anyone can create one to improve their Google search results. In some ways, making a public profile on a career networking site achieves a similar effect. If you want to go the old-fashioned route, here’s how to do it:
- Buy a domain name from a site like GoDaddy.com or Register.com—this shouldn’t cost you more than around $10 per year. Ideally, you can get your full name, though if it is very common you may have to throw in a middle initial or use the formal version (e.g., William instead of Will).
- Once you’ve got a URL, GoDaddy also offers site building tools and web hosting for less than $5 a month—if you don’t want to take the time to teach yourself simple HTML, the “Website Tonight” option will help you throw together a customized page in no time.
- Decide what you want to include on the page. It really only needs to be one page and include basic information that will identify you to employers—your name, where your from, and what you do. It could also include some sort of personal statement and links to your work or things that interest you. Leave off private details like your home address, phone number, and social security number. Even if you think no one would want your identity, someone will try to steal it. People steal scrap metal for goodness sake!
- Network your nameplate and move up those rankings!
Become a message board maven. Message boards are probably the easiest place to proactively promote your name and nameplate. Join communities that relate to your professional interests and the results will be even more useful. For example, if you are into technology, post on CNET; for politics, try the Huffington Post or Wonkette. It doesn’t really matter as long as you A) use your full name, B) link your nameplate, and C) don’t swear or write anything offensive.
Start a professional blog. Having a personal blog full of your scribblings is fundamental to the new “starving artist” paradigm, so if you’re an aspiring writer this is a no-brainer. But regardless of what field you’re in, a blog containing your thoughts—on anything from marketing to the stock market to fashion—will show that you are engaged, and it will also provide you with an incentive to stay up-to-date and involved in your industry of choice. To get started, register with Blogger or Wordpress, two free and extremely user-friendly blogging platforms. Who knows, if your blog becomes popular enough you may even make some extra money off of it.
These days, many people are also keeping job-hunting blogs to document their search and market their skills. This is not a terrible idea so long as you don’t slag off the companies you interview with or let out sensitive information about the hiring process. The poster child for this trend is Sean Aiken, who started the website OneWeekJob.com to document his quest to try 52 different jobs in 52 weeks. Talk about a “quarterlife crisis”!? At any rate, this stunt earned him a New York Times feature, various interviews on CNN and NPR, and a bunch of other press. Now his Google search is off the charts!