How many of you have Googled yourself, only to find an unappealing image, regrettable article or uncomfortable personal information? In our digital age, what appears online can seriously damage your professional reputation and credibility.
Don't despair. You can turn a bad situation into new professional opportunities if you take the right steps. It simply takes a little effort and time to professionalize your online profile. To keep it very simple, there are two main ways to look at improving your online profile.
First, put up more of you want others to see. We advise that you start here because this is entirely within your control. The second part is to get rid of the offending material, which you probably have a lot less control over. What activity to tackle first depends on how bad the online content is and what your priorities are. For example, if you're about to launch a big job search, you may want to deal with the negative stuff right away if there are quick, easy fixes. Keep in mind that some of the things you do will take weeks to months to play out because you can't change the way search results appear overnight.
Part 1: Beef up the Good.
1. Control what you can by generating positive information.
Take advantage of the fact that certain websites have more authority than others in search results. Sites like LinkedIn are given high authority by search engines for names which means that there is a high likelihood that the first search result could be your LinkedIn profile. If you already have a LinkedIn profile, you can append the LinkedIn URL to your email signature and other places you control (for example, your personal website or other social media profiles) to generate more clicks on the LinkedIn profile. The more links and clicks you get for your LinkedIn profile, the higher it will appear in search results over time. If you don't already have a LinkedIn profile, you should create one. We know, it's so cliche. But even if you're anti-social media, if you're a professional or ever aspire to be, you should sign up.
2. Optimize your LinkedIn Profile.
As we already said, take advantage of LinkedIn's internet authority. At a minimum, make sure you have a profile and that its complete. Check your settings to make sure your name is part of your LinkedIn profile URL. This will help it show up in search results for your name. In addition, follow their instructions to make sure your profile fully describes your education, employment history, affiliations and accomplishments. Since search results for names often include photos by default, your LinkedIn photo is quite important. If you're trying to minimize the airtime of bad photos from college parties or wish you could remove the Facebook photo someone tagged when you had a bad hair day, your LinkedIn photo becomes even more important. You don't need to splurge on a professional headshot, but you should make your photo is one you would be proud for any future employer or professional connection to see.
3. Create a personal website.
If you want more positive, professional online real estate for yourself, consider creating a personal website. Its actually quite easy to build something a - completely free - with minimal design and technical know-how. For example, you could start with a free or cheap website (or landing page) builder like those offered by Wordpress or Wix. They come with design templates and easy-to-follow instructions as well. Your website can be as basic or elaborate as you wish.
To boost your professional profile, you could include your resume in a format of your own choosing. And you can include anything else that's relevant, such as sample work or projects. One benefit of your own website is that you get to showcase aspects of your personality by virtue of the fact that you are in control of the design, look-and-feel and structure of your site. For design professionals or those whose sense of aesthetics matter professionally, you'll want to take this project more seriously.
4. Create content.
You have many choices. You can write a blog post or an article, create an infographic or a white-paper. You can make a video. Depending on what you do, and your area of expertise, your content can really help you stand out professionally. If you are a lawyer, you can write about the latest developments in your practice area. If you work in PR, you can share best practices. If you are a nurse, you can talk about the way that hospitals have changed. You may even want to suggest that your employer posts your article on the company website or blog if its symbiotic and a win-win situation.
If writing for your company isn't a possibility, don't worry. You can publish content on Medium, LinkedIn, or Facebook, not to mention countless industry blogs that accept guest contributors. These blogs try to attract content from writers who are hoping for air time so as long as you pitch yourself correctly to them (and they usually publish guidelines), this should work out. Whatever you do, the point is this: there are many sites that give you a place to create content. Each one is an opportunity to demonstrate your professional expertise. If you create something that is interesting and helpful to people, over time others will find it and link to it. It certainly can't hurt your search results. The best part is that you can write about anything you want. Keep in mind that a first-person narrative often draws a lot of attention (which translates into higher search result placement over time). People searching for you typically want to get a sense of you. Your resume is one way to do that, but your personality and voice is something strangers will want to get a sense of youe writing.
5. Join communities.
Consider answering questions for general online communities such as Quora or more specialized platforms (e.g. many exist in technology like Hacker News or StackOverflow). If its too overwhelming to create content from scratch, you may answer questions related to your area of professional interest or expertise. These are positive, professional associations that live online forever. Your answers may also include links back to your own website and portfolio of work, which raises the search placement of those sites over time.
6. Get expert help.
Consider using a service to help supplement your efforts. If you don't feel comfortable doing some of these things on your own, there are reputation management companies out there willing to help you. Most charge a fee but there are freemium sites like BrandYourself that offer basic services and Do-It-Yourself tools. They also can give you pointers on how to remove negative content about you online.
7. Go beyond basics.
If you are a digital professional, you probably need to go beyond all these basics. Say, for example, you're a social media marketing manager. Your professional abilities and digital footprint are heavily intertwined, so you will need to devote a lot more time and resource to your personal social media presence than other professionals. One solution for those who are understandably private and publicity-shy is to pick a cause, hobby or side-project that you feel comfortable focusing on. Create social media content or awareness of this topic or cause and you will be able to practice (and demonstrate) your skills in generating interest, followers and traffic. Finally, we wanted to point out one woman who created a website just to attract a potential employer's attention. We know this isn't necessarily appropriate for every employer or type of job, but it is certainly inspirational and shows how focus and effort can pay off!
Part 2: Remove the Bad.
8. Delete (or hide) the offending information.
This sounds obviously incredibly obvious but first check that you don't actually have control over the information at issue. You may simply need to change permission defaults and privacy settings.
9. Close the the entire account if you can't get rid of what bothers you.
If you signed up for a service that gives you limited editing rights, you may need to delete accounts in order to rid yourself of your digital history. Sometimes its no big deal (e.g. does anyone still have a MySpace account?) and the information you don't like appears high in search results because its been around for a long time. Removing it can do the trick.
10. Reach out to people.
Ask the website owner to remove information that bothers you. This can be relatively easy depending on what you are trying to accomplish. If your friend tagged an unappealing photo of you on Instagram, you can simply ask them to remove it. Its a lot harder if you are mentioned in a news story or a piece where someone made an editorial decision. You can still ask, of course but be prepared to present a compelling reason. Appealing to the author's sense of journalistic integrity (whether they are a journalist or not) will take you much further, so this is especially effective if you believe something is factually incorrect. If someone has written something defamatory or potentially illegal, you can try pursuing a legal course of action. This is potentially a pretty serious commitment of time and money so obviously you should make sure that it's worth it.
11. Reach out to companies.
Ask search engines to remove your information, but don't expect much unless it's really bad stuff. You may ask Google to remove certain information you find about yourself online. Their full guidelines are here, but the main gist of their policy appears to be based on preventing illegal content (e.g. child pornography) and/or information that could easily lead to illegal behavior (e.g. bank account numbers). In other words, information you think is embarrassing or unflattering may not necessarily be taken down. However, they make it pretty easy to ask so the worst that can happen is that they say no.
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