5 steps to a squeaky-clean online identity

Five steps to managing your online identity and ensuring that when someone Googles you, they see the personal brand you build.

In 2004, I delivered a personal-branding presentation that, for the first time, included a slide that asked the question: “If you don’t show up in Google, do you exist?” That slide got a huge audience reaction and has been in virtually every presentation I have delivered since.

The answer to the question is no, at least as far as hiring managers and executive recruiters are concerned.

But what if you do show up in Google, and what Google reveals is either unflattering or inconsistent with how you want to be known?

Googling (performing a Google search on someone) is quickly becoming the standard reference check in job searches and a key filter hiring managers and executive recruiters use to evaluate and cull candidates. Studies reveal that executive recruiters Google candidates and have eliminated candidates from the running based on their Google results. So knowing what Google says about you is important, and proactively managing your online identity is an essential element in your job-search strategy.

For $100K+ earners like yourself, you don’t have the same concern about beer-funnel photos that younger managers do, but that doesn’t mean that your online profile is squeaky clean.

There could be content online that does not represent who you are and what you have to offer prospective employers. We call this undesirable content “digital dirt.” Digital dirt includes any Web-based content that will prevent you from reaching your goals.

There are two kinds of dirt:

1. Self-posted dirt.
That’s right, you may have muddied up your own profile. The good news is that most of this self-created content can be easily vacuumed up. But it’s important to note what constitutes “dirt.” Remember, it is not just outright negative or inappropriate content that qualifies as dirt; if you have revealed a little too much about your political views or posted a comment to someone’s blog that is replete with typos and misspellings, you might be removing yourself from consideration for some jobs.

Too much content about what you did in a previous life can also impede your prospects. Be sure virtually everything you post on the Web reflects your unique value and positions you for the role you seek to fill.

2. Dirt posted by others.
This is a much more insidious kind of dirt and typically much harder to clean up. I once had a client who was fired from his investment-industry job, and a Wall Street Journal story about the seemingly fraudulent transactions in which his company was involved included his name. In fact, the word “fraud” was only three words away from his name in the Google description! It was a major problem for him since this data showed up as the first item in a Web search on his name. He was unable to get the Wall Street Journal to remove the story from its Web site.

Like it or not, today your Google results are as important as your resume or cover letter. So as you seek your next role, you must focus on building and maintaining an accurate and compelling online profile. Here’s the five-step process for managing your online identity — sweeping up as much digital dirt as possible.

Step 1: Know what’s out there.
The first step to resolving most challenges is to get the right information. In this case, the information you need is available just by Googling yourself (also known as “ego-surfing”). To help make sense of your Google results, use this free tool: www.onlineidcalculator.com. When evaluating your results, focus on the first three pages of results. Those who perform Google searches rarely look beyond Page Three. Once you know what is out there and where you fall on the digital scale, you can make a plan to address it.

Step 2: Know what you want your Google results to say.
Now that you know what is out there, you need to think about what you want your Google results to look like. You can’t get from here to there if you don’t know what “there” looks like. It’s time to uncover and define your personal brand. You need to answer these questions:

  • What do you want to be known for?
  • What makes you stand out from all your peers?
  • What’s your area of expertise/thought leadership?
  • What words do you want people to use to describe you?
  • What are your greatest accomplishments?

Learn more about personal branding here: http://www.reachpersonalbranding.com/about/personal-branding/.

Step 3: Clean up the dirt and enhance your digital image.
If you posted anything that might be considered inappropriate or perhaps comes from a past life, remove it. If you have dirt that was posted by others, first ask those who posted it if they will remove it. If you can’t wipe your digital identity clean, you must create enough high-ranking content to move that dirt beyond page three (Steps 4 and 5 below); or, you must at least ensure the “clean” sits alongside the dirt so people have a better understanding of who you are.

Step 4: Build your own place on the WWW.
The best way to get people to understand exactly who you are is to tell your own story. First, you must buy your own domain name — e.g., www.williamarruda.com. You can buy domains at www.godaddy.com. Then you can build (or have built for you) a personal Web site. Blogging platforms such as TypePad and WordPress are great tools for building a Web site — even if you choose not to blog. Remember to include:

  • Your bio
  • A professionally taken headshot
  • Links to all relevant content on the Web about you (making it a one-stop shop),
  • Testimonials from people who have worked with you
  • Proof of performance (PDFs of presentations, video, audio clips, and so on.)
  • Links to Web sites and content on the Web that you think are valuable and help showcase your area of expertise or thought leadership.

Ensure your site content and style reflect your personality. Use color, fonts and imagery to bolster your brand attributes.

Step 5: Use Web 2.0 tools to enhance your online ID.
If you aren’t ready for your own Web site or would like to increase your volume of Google results, take advantage of all the social-networking sites that are available — like LinkedIn, Naymz, Ziki and Ziggs (and countless others). Include your branded bio, professional headshot and other relevant information. You need not use the social networking aspects of these sites (in fact, you won’t have the time to be an active participant on all these sites), so use LinkedIn for networking and the others to enhance your online ID.

In addition, find blogs related to your area of expertise ( www.technorati.com is a blog search engine that will help you find relevant blogs by keywords), and subscribe to them. Then append relevant comments to blog posts when you have something valuable to contribute. This becomes part of your online identity.

Of course, your Google results change all the time, so you need to be vigilant. I suggest Googling yourself weekly and subscribing to Google Alerts for your name ( www.google.com/alerts ). Then, every time something shows up on the Web with your name on it, you’ll be the first to know.