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How to build and manage an online reputation

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Thanks to search engines, anyone who uses the Internet has an online reputation to manage. Here is SmartPlanet's guide to building and managing an online reputation.

You can't control everything people say about you on the Web, but you can, to an extent, control what shows up first.

It's the 21st century, and it's more important than ever to build and manage an online reputation. Regardless of which industry you work in -- or whether you're seeking a job or not -- if you don't have a digital trail on the Web, you're missing out on a valuable chance to directly affect how people who don't know you think of you.

It's called personal branding, in fact. And increasingly, you don't have a choice.

It has become second nature to use a search engine to find out more information about someone, not only personally, but professionally. (And yes, human resources professionals use Google.)

Which means anyone who uses the Internet has an online reputation to manage. Period.

Anyone can post anything about anyone online. So why would you leave those search results to chance?

Here is SmartPlanet's guide to building and managing your online reputation:

Step 1: Find out what's out there

First things first: Find out what the Web says about you by searching for your name. Start with Google, used by approx. 63 percent of people. Then try Yahoo! search, used by 16 percent of people. Then give it a go with Microsoft Bing, used by 12 percent of people.

The results will look similar, but there will be slight differences in the order and priority of your results.

  • If you have an uncommon name, most of the results will look familiar.
  • If you have a common name, most of the results won't have anything to do with you.
  • If nothing came up, you've somehow managed to stay below the Web's radar. (This is good. More on this later.)

But a general Web search isn't the only place you should look.

If you've run into trouble with the law in the past, give CriminalSearches a try to see if your rap sheet is public (yet).

And if you've ever signed up for anything on the Web, you should take Pipl for a spin, which aggregates public white pages results, public records (names, addresses, phone numbers, past and present), e-mail addresses (past and present), mentions in print publications, court records, social media profiles (such as MySpace, Facebook, photo-sharing sites, etc.), Web page mentions, blog post mentions, even lists of your classmates from high school.

It's at this point that you're either overwhelmed, horrified, relieved or some combination of the three. That's OK -- we'll address all of these in the next section.

Step 2: Clean up what's already out there (if you can)

If you weren't able to surface anything about yourself, you're lucky, and can skip to the next step.

But if you're the vast majority of people, you've probably stumbled across something with your name on it. If it's a public record -- name, address, phone number --  it's nothing to be alarmed about, since that information is available for most people. (If it's a criminal or court record, you may be concerned, but a public record is a public record.) Either way, you can't modify these listings, since they're public by nature.

If it's something you've posted yourself, well, get thee to your account to modify or delete it.

But if a result that isn't a public record and isn't of your own doing, either, you've got one of three options if you're displeased with it:

  • You can ignore it.
  • You can request that the person who posted it take it down. (Easy if it's a friend, harder if it's an enemy or stranger.)
  • You can attempt legal action, which is a deep and dubiously successful dive into libel or copyright law.

But if it's a result of your own doing -- a MySpace profile, or the website you set up for your wedding or baby photos, or that "secret" blog you use to gripe about your boss -- it's time to reevaluate how you're presenting yourself online.

Step 3: Understand that more information is better

Your first reaction to the discovery of your "secret" MySpace page might be, "I'll take it down!"

That would be a terrible mistake.

As more information (public and private) makes its way onto the Web, it's better to manage your presence, rather than hide from an eventual outing. (Yes, you can theoretically use an alias to conceal your identity, but once someone's discovered the real you, the fun's over.) So instead of clearing off all the information on your online profiles or removing your name from your website or blog, ensure that what's on those pages complements your reputation.

Whether it's a social networking profile or a blog, lose the purple glitter and your friend connection with Tila Tequila and the picture of you doing shots in Cabo.

Instead, put appropriate and accurate information. Remove any off-color or immature language. Correct poor spelling and grammar. Choose picture(s) you wouldn't mind your boss (or your wife, or your mother, or your child) seeing.

The point of this: to surround your name with information you want to be associated with. The strategy: to bury any negative or inappropriate search results, if any, with positive, appropriate results.

Think of it like so: Like a crisp suit or dress at a job interview, you want to put your best foot forward. Your online reputation is the 24/7 stand-in for that interview.

Step 4: Take basic steps to build a foundation for your online reputation

If you're trying to grab your online reputation by the horns, there's no better way to do that than to take steps to create one for yourself. If 50 percent of the job is managing what's already out there, the other 50 percent is creating appropriate references for yourself and tying them together as a cohesive whole.

There are several means you can use to accomplish this. Here are three of the most popular:

LinkedIn

If you have ever had a job, you should probably create a LinkedIn profile, a social networking site that's tailored for business professionals. Whether you work at a large corporation or you're a student, LinkedIn serves as a great way to start your online reputation on the right foot in an office-appropriate way.

LinkedIn eschews photo galleries and favorite songs and other ephemera to instead allow you to reproduce your work history online, without slapping the whole resume up on the Web. You can connect your profile to those of your coworkers, which helps an employer or client get a better sense of who you are and where you've been.

As always, fill it out to the best of your ability: current job, previous jobs, education, appropriate photo, etc. Join a handful of LinkedIn Groups that are appropriate (alumni for your alma mater; industry-related umbrella groups), and make sure to fill the "website" field with another online presence, such as Facebook or another appropriate site from this list.

Finally, consider choosing a LinkedIn vanity url, so your name appears in the website address of your public profile, such as www.linkedin.com/in/barackobama.

Facebook

Many people think Facebook is no better than MySpace when it comes to mindless, time-wasting social media sites, but Facebook is useful for building an online reputation because it is, by its nature, anchored to your real identity. Take advantage of this by taking the same steps you did with your LinkedIn profile: fill out your profile accurately, honestly, appropriately and completely. You can leave out certain fields such as religion or political views if you'd like, but make sure you put your educational and work info, as well as a picture your mother would be proud of.

Facebook has a comprehensive, if slightly onerous to use, set of privacy settings. Fine-tune "friends lists" with appropriate settings for the eventual reality that your friends, spouse, coworkers and family will all "friend" you.

In the "website" field, put your LinkedIn profile or another appropriate site. And create a vanity URL for your profile to tie it all together (www.facebook.com/barackobama)

Google Public Profile

Google recently began offering "public profiles" for its users that appear at the bottom of the first page of search results for your name. Since Google is by far the most popular search engine, it's a no brainer to create this page, which is a summarized version of a LinkedIn or Facebook profile. It includes your name, a photo, your job and general location, a short biography/"about me" and fields for previous employers and education.

Most importantly, it also includes a section to allow you to link to other presences online. So add your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to the list.

Step 4: Take advanced steps to proactively develop your online reputation

LinkedIn, Facebook and Google are all passive ways to establish an online reputation. However, as any celebrity knows, it takes work to keep on developing it.

Here are four ways to develop your online reputation that take some time and effort:

Create your own website

For most people, it's not necessary to create your own website. But if you're in an industry where you have public things to show a potential employer -- images or words or video for creative professionals, press coverage for PR or public figures, appearances for actors, speaking engagements for CEOs, projects for entrepreneurs, etc. -- it's a good idea.

There are two steps to starting your own site: Buying a doman name (such as www.smartplanet.com) and paying for hosting services. It's a bit like buying a street address and renting the land assigned to it. There are many companies that offer these services, as well as many more that will create a website for you. It can get quite technical at times, so if you're not that type, call a knowledgeable friend for help.

Start a blog

A blog isn't necessarily a place to talk about your day's activities -- it's a way to brand yourself, personally and professionally.

Why? Because a great blog sets you apart as an expert in your field, either professionally (your industry) or personally (your hobby). A focused, articulate blog about a topic that you care about creates a resource for others interested in the subject, trains you to articulate yourself and shows that you have the will to contribute to something on a regular basis.

Entrepreneur and brazen careerist Penelope Trunk has a great quick 'n' dirty guide on how to start blogging.

Join Twitter

Twitter has been called a time-waster and an echo-chamber of meaningless drivel, but it's a fantastic networking tool. Why? Because it's a way to directly connect with others.

While a blog can be difficult to gain readers, because you must steer them to it, anything you post on Twitter easily appears in another person's feed. The one-click "follow" function allows people to see what others are saying without much effort, and the "@" tag -- which is used to direct a comment to anyone (@barackobama, for example) -- really does go right to them (or in the case of President Obama, his staff).

That means that by following both colleagues and friends -- as well as people you respect in your field but have never met -- you can be noticed yourself. Just remember to post something useful ("Check out this great article on management") rather than inane ("Just ate a hot dog...yum!").

So sign up, put your real name, link to your website or another presence, and use the same picture you are using on all your other profiles for continuity.

Step 5: Remember why you have to "build" an online reputation

Regardless of whether you take a passive or active approach to your online reputation, recognize that it involves your intervention.

You can't afford to let the collective Web dictate what other people think about you -- certainly not if you can help it -- and taking steps to build and maintain an online reputation helps you control that.

That way a search for your name shows results for your professional profile -- and not a listing for how much money you owe your township in back taxes.

Keep in mind the value of connecting all these profiles (with links) to create a digital spiderweb that ties everything about you together. By tying these "appearances" together by cross-linking them, you're publicly indicating that you're not only aware of these other mentions of your name, but you've approved them.

Finally, remember that the Internet never forgets (even if you delete something!). So your best strategy is to always put your best foot forward online.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure