Although search engines provide some sense of order to the Internet, this online frontier is still a wild place. There are billions of people using the Internet, both for entertainment and for professional purposes. Not everyone keeps up his or her professional image in the most effective way.
There are no rules for standard professional behavior online, but there are some basic steps that will make you look more like an expert and less like an amateur, no matter what field of work you're in. It's called online reputation management, and it impacts you and every other working professional.
Whether you like it or not, you probably already have a significant online presence. Between government documents, newspaper articles and self-generated content, it's not hard for others to dig up information about you. And whether those people are potential employers, co-workers or casual acquaintances, it's generally a good idea to put your best foot forward on the Web.
For example, although social networks like Facebook were designed more for casual socializing, more and more human resource managers use these sites to screen potential employees. You must realize that personal Web content can have an effect on you professional life.
Also be aware that if there are photos, videos or other types of evidence of your inappropriate behavior online, it's not necessarily the end of your career. You can take a few steps not only to mitigate the damage, but also put a better spin on your reputation.
And if you have a knack for spin and harnessing social media, you may even be able to turn a potentially disastrous online revelation into a positive professional development. That's called demonstrating your ability to maintain a positive attitude, overcome adversity and succeed in spite of obstacles -- a trait that employers and co-workers appreciate very much.
Even if you don't have any personal behaviors to conceal from professional colleagues, there are plenty of ways for you to maintain and burnish your online reputation. Keep reading to see specific tips for creating a reputable online persona.
The Best (or Worst) Stands Out
The Internet doesn't censor your life or filter out items you don't want other people to see. When anyone (including potential employers) plugs your name into Google, the search engine's algorithms deliver the most relevant results.
Relevance is determined by obscure and proprietary secret algorithms. However, the more links that lead to a specific bit of content, the more likely that content will be ranked higher in Google results.
In other words, if the most popular content associated with your name is pictures of you, extremely inebriated and half-dressed at a party, the more likely that content will reflect poorly on your online reputation.
Part of the solution is to load the Web with professional-looking content that reflects well on your name. Keep reading and you'll see ways to make your name stand out, but in a good way.
Professional Perception is Reality
People who initially find you on the Internet have only that content by which to judge you. Humans generally take initial impressions to be the reality about another person. So, if the information they see about you is slick, well-informed and professional, researchers are more likely to have a positive opinion of you.
You can take steps to help shape that impression. Use a professional e-mail address (not a free account from Gmail, Yahoo, or other providers). Carefully re-read e-mails and blog posts for grammar and spelling before you upload them.
Realize that the more time and effort you put into online content -- in other words, the more you value that content -- the more likely that other people will value it, too. On the other hand, people immediately spot fluff or inconsequential content and move on.
Worse yet, they will fixate on salacious or dramatic content that's embarrassing. You want to avoid that kind of content when possible. Instead, present a perception of your professional demeanor whenever possible.
Defend Your Reputation
Be proactive in guarding your privacy and your reputation. This process can be time-consuming, but dedicating time every week to finding and removing dubious content is well worth the effort.
For example, if someone tags a questionable photo on Facebook, you can remove the tag yourself. If you can't remove the tag, nicely ask your friend to do it.
Or, if an acquaintance creates a blog post with stories you'd rather not share with the entire world, ask him or her to remove offending details. It's better to address this issue with friends than with your work colleagues.
Don't expect someone else to do this work for you. Be extremely leery of companies that want to charge you a fee to supposedly remove your name or associated content from Web sites. It is virtually impossible to entirely remove content from the Web. The Web is a worldwide network, and no country's laws can compel a site to remove specific content, even if that site is hosted in the United States.
In the rare instance a lawyer or judge could convince a site owner to remove content, that content would just be distributed to many other sources. In short, there simply is no reining in content once it's online. Your best option is to keep negative materials from ever hitting the Web in the first place.
Protect Passwords and Other Vital Information
On the Web, protecting personal information is of utmost importance. Passwords unlock everything you've stored online. If a malicious stranger has access to your accounts, a whole range of horrible events may happen.
Targets may become victims of identity theft. Some have financial resources stolen or manipulated.
Still others have their computer accounts hacked -- then the hacker blasts the victim's entire e-mail contact list with scam e-mails that attempt to exploit the target's friends and professional acquaintances. Even if his or her colleagues sidestep the hacking attempt, they'll not look fondly on the victim's lack of cyber smarts.
So do what you can to minimize these risks. For instance, don't use an easy-to-guess password. And don't enter passwords into public computers if at all possible. Lack of monitoring means hackers can use public computers to harvest passwords and account information.
And although all e-mail services offer them, be leery of password security questions (name of your high school, mother's maiden name and other information) as hackers can often quickly dredge up this information with a simple search. With the answer to your security problem in hand, they'll worm their way into your online life and cause problems you can't anticipate.
Control Your Branding
Managing your professional reputation isn't all about avoidance and prevention. You should also think of your online reputation as a product that constantly needs to be marketed in the right way.
As you create this content, be consistent with your message and your profiles. Use the same slogan, logos and fonts with every kind of content. A coherent message will cut through the Web's clutter and even perhaps overshadow the things you don't want professional acquaintances to see.
Have your colleagues and clients view the content you create and review your services or goods, or offer testimonials to your expertise. Do not undervalue the power of honest reviews and testimonials. Likewise, don't ask your friends to lie in reviews. Not only is this unethical, but smart Web surfers will quickly spot fake reviews.
Perform other proactive tasks. Search for your name and your business name regularly. In other words, monitor your reputation. Create Google Alerts for your name and business to see what people are saying.
When a customer or peer offers criticism, don't lash out in anger. Respond respectfully to negative reviews and do your best to correct the problem.
Use an Alias
It's not a bad idea to create a space between your professional and personal lives when you're online. An online alias is a good way to immediately distance your personal life from your career-minded online identity.
This tactic will keep most people from finding your personal items to begin with. In most cases, a casual surfer shouldn't be able to connect your professional name to private, personal alias. Best of all, embarrassing content is connected to your personal alias instead of your professional name.
However, if the worst happens and your good name is smeared across the Web in a way that destroys your credibility, you may need to take drastic action. The best way to fix a ruined reputation is to clean the slate and create a new name to use online, not try to undo what you've done with your given name.
You can reestablish profiles and content across the Web using a slightly different name, perhaps using your middle name as your first name. Then you can more carefully safeguard this identity as you move on with your life.
Establish Your Expertise
As you work to manage your reputation, be active online in ways that reflect well on you as a professional. You can pump up your reputation in unlimited ways.
Blog about topics that interest you and that establish you as an expert on a relevant subject. You don't have be the world's top expert -- just a well-rounded, trustworthy professional who puts thought and value into online content.
By providing valuable information that readers appreciate, you attract people who will re-post your information (with credit) and link to the content you created. This all drives more traffic to your content, whether it's a Web site, blog or other resource, and pushes your site closer to the top of Google results.
This betters your online reputation in a big way. What's more, search engine results will list your positive accomplishments ahead of more personal items.
The Internet Never Forgets
Be smart and think ahead when you post content online. If you post something questionable, you can bet that someday, someone will find it. Google and other search engines are only getting better at digging up and delivering accurate search results.
Adopt the attitude that if you post something to the Internet, it's there forever. Even if you delete an original post deriding your boss, there's a very good chance that a copy of that message has been duplicated and transferred to other parts of the Web.
For example, even though a Web site is no longer functional, you can still view cached copies that Google stories years after the site is shuttered. The same goes for your blog and even e-mail messages.
Not everyone is happy about the Web's long memory. Some experts are pushing for data to have a so-called expiration date that obliterates data once it has reached a certain age. However, expiration dates or related technologies are probably years away, meaning your own vigilance is your best protection.
Prepare for Potential Employers
Studies show that the majority of HR managers perform Internet searches prior to interviewing job candidates. If they link unprofessional content to your name, you may be crossed off of a list of interviewees.
However, studies also show that HR pros also take embarrassing online information with a large grain of salt. They know that context is important and that there may be a simple reason that your off-color video clips somehow gained a high Google ranking.
With that in mind, understand that an interviewer may question you directly about unprofessional online content. That person may just want to know if you understand how easily this kind of online information can affect your real-life opportunities. Express that you're concerned, too, and explain the steps you've taken to avoid future embarrassments.
Don't be surprised if an interviewer pushes even further. Some HR managers will go so far as to ask candidates to load their MySpace or Facebook profiles in the middle of an interview [source: Rosen]. If that's a chilling thought, be sure to scour your profiles and delete unbecoming information in advance.
Privacy is Still Real -- If You Want It
These days, embarrassing photos, stories and outright violations of privacy are so common that once the initial shock wears off, the online community offers a collective shrug. Many tech pundits and journalists then proffer two perfunctory statements -- this kind of thing happens to everyone eventually, and thanks to the Internet and ubiquitous camera technology, privacy doesn't really exist anymore.
These kinds of over-generalized statements simply aren't entirely true. The more content you blast onto the Internet, the more pieces of your personal puzzle you're offering to complete strangers.
In other words, don't throw your arms up in exasperation and totally give up on the idea of controlling your online image. With a little personal restraint and friends who respect your efforts to manage your online reputation, you can keep damage to a minimum and really put a shine on your expertise in the process.
For more on professional behavior and the Internet, read on to the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at companies that have successfully switched from five days of work to four, with spectacular results. So, why don't more try it?
- Bennett, Jessica. "A Tragedy That Won't Fade Away." Newsweek. April 25, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.newsweek.com/2009/04/24/a-tragedy-that-won-t-fade-away.html
- Brandt, Andrew. "How to Protect Your Online Passwords." PC World. Jan. 26, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.pcworld.com/article/157816/how_to_protect_your_online_passwords.html
- Carlson, Nicholas. "'Embarrasing and Damaging' Zuckerberg Ims Confirmed by Zuckerberg, The New Yorker." BusinessInsider.com. Sept. 13, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.businessinsider.com/embarrassing-and-damaging-zuckerberg-ims-confirmed-by-zuckerberg-the-new-yorker-2010-9
- Chen, Janice. "Don't Want Embarrassing Old Photos Scanned and Posted on Facebook. You're Not Alone!" ZDNet. March 18, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.zdnet.com/blog/digitalcameras/dont-want-embarrassing-old-photos-scanned-and-posted-on-facebook-youre-not-alone/619
- Emarketer.com. "How Consumers Balance Openess and Privacy." June 2, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?R=1007732
- Garner, Jayne and O'Sullivan, Helen. "Facebook and the Professional Behaviours of Undergraduate Medical Student." Wiley Online Library. May 19, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-498X.2010.00356.x/full
- Gunn, Eileen, P. "8 Ways to Buff Your Professional Image -- Online." U.S. News and World Report. Oct. 24, 2007. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2007/10/24/8-ways-to-buff-your-professional-image--online.html
- Microsoft.com. "Research Shows Online Reputation Matters." December 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.microsoft.com/privacy/dpd/research.aspx
- Pattison, Kermit. "Managing on Online Reputation." The New York Times. July 30, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/business/smallbusiness/30reputation.html
- Ramel, David. "Can Your Online Past Come Back to Haunt You?" Computerworld. May 7, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9132615/Can_your_online_past_come_back_to_haunt_you_
- Rosen, Jeffery. "The Web Means the End of Forgetting." The New York Times. July 21, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html
- Schonfeld, Erick. "Kleiner and Bessemer Put $8.65 Million into Reputation Defender." TechCrunch.com. Jan. 12, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://techcrunch.com/2010/01/12/reputationdefender-kleiner-bessemer-8-65-million/
- Stone, Brad. "Viruses that Leave Victims Red in the Facebook." The New York Times. Dec. 14, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/technology/internet/14virus.html
- Trenholm, Richard. "Google Boss Solves Embarrassing Facebook Photos: Change Your Name." CnetUK. Aug. 18, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://crave.cnet.co.uk/software/google-boss-solves-embarrassing-facebook-photos-change-your-name-50000385/
- Zetter, Kim. "Palin E-mail Hacker Says it Was Easy." Wired. Sept. 18, 2008. (Sept. 23, 2010)http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2008/09/palin-e-mail-ha/