Taking Control of Your Online Identity

Recently on Lifehacker and a couple of other sites that I read regularly they have been talking about your online identity.  Who you are when someone types your name in to a search engine.  I’m sure you’ve tried it, most people have done what has been referred to as “vanity Googling”.  While vanity, or some level of curiosity may be the motivating factor behind people searching their own name online, it actually is something everyone should try.  Why?  Simple, so that you can be aware of how you are being presented should someone search your name.  That someone could be a potential employer, client, date, or any number of other people you’ve come in contact with.  If you don’t know what the search engines reveal about you, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

To be prepared for writing this I went ahead and Googled myself.  It had been awhile and I was curious as to what I might find.  Under “Alex Schwartz” it took until page 22 to reach a reference that was actually to me and that was a link to Dan’s florn.net podcast.  Under Alexander Schwartz the first reference I hit was after a few pages, and that was a link to my Amazon profile and wish lists.  Nothing terribly damning there other than learning which X-Box games I long to play, and what books I want to get next.  Trust me, it’s not that interesting, take a look if you don’t believe me.  Googling me doesn’t reveal much of anything about me(yahoo and Bing both turn up next to nothing while searching my name). In some ways it’s a good thing because I don’t have to worry about people finding out things about me that could be damaging.  I’ve been pretty good about avoiding putting anything online that could be taken the wrong way.  By the same token sometimes not finding anything speaks volumes.  Are people going to wonder if I’m secretive?  Not very interesting?  Haven’t done anything with my life?  A luddite (well, okay, checking my Amazon wish list, or the fact that I run my own domain, disprove that theory in a hurry)?  Not even real?  It leaves a lot of room for people to speculate and just plain wonder.  Paranoid?  Maybe a touch, but let’s face it, online life has been, in many ways, merging with our real world lives.  People have lost a shot at a dream job simply due to a dumb comment, or inopportune picture posted to the web.  Just like at a face to face meeting, you want the first impression of your online identity to be a positive one.

So assume rather than my meager innocuous findings, I discovered several things during my search that I’d rather other people, especially potential employers, not see.  Not everything is lost.  Many sites allow you to easily remove the comment or photo in question.  Even when they don’t have a mechanism in place for you to do it yourself, writing the maintainers of the site a polite e-mail will often yield great results.  People who manage web pages understand these sorts of predicament and will often be more than willing to help out so long as you’re polite about it.  If they aren’t willing to remove the offending material your list of options becomes quite short.  I’m not sure if there are legal methodologies that can come in to play, you’d have to consult with a lawyer about how to handle that situation.  If the situation can’t be remedied before someone might be inclined to run a search on you, then you can either keep your fingers crossed, or you can be upfront about it, let them know what they might find if they search for you, and explain it, put it in to context to help disarm the situation.