Several months ago when Twitter introduced its lists feature, social media consultant Allen Mireles checked to see which lists included her. "I wanted to see if the lists I was on were a reflection of how I wanted to be viewed on Twitter," she says. She found two surprises: A porn star had included her on a list and another user listed her under "people I've seen naked"—a surprise, she says, because she had never met the person.
Mireles responded immediately. First she blocked the porn star on Twitter, which automatically removed her from the list. Then she sent a direct message to the owner of the other list and explained that she uses Twitter for business purposes and didn't think it was appropriate to include her on it. "He very kindly took me off the list and apologized, saying he had been trying to make some of his lists 'more interesting,'" Mireles says.
Joe Laratro, president of Tandem Interactive, an online marketing solutions company, experienced a similar situation. About a year ago, Laratro received a Google Alert that included a link to a post from a blogger who commented negatively on Laratro's handling of work with a client.
Laratro, too, decided to contact the source to respond to the blog post. "I thought I was being proactive with the blogger by engaging with him and being friendly and trying to continue the conversation," he says. "But once I had his attention, he wanted to further attack me. When I realized communicating with him had backfired, I stopped commenting and let it go away."
As social sites with user-generated content such as Facebook, Twitter and WordPress continue to grow in popularity, and with Google's announcement of real-time search, you must be aware of and manage your online reputation carefully now. "Social media has made our lives very transparent," Laratro says. "If you maintain a professional persona, this can be something positive, but if you're unaware of comments or pictures online that that you wouldn't even want your mother to see, it can be terrible."
Several free tools can help you keep tabs on what's being said about you online. One of the most popular tools is a Google Alert for your name, which will automatically inform you when you're referenced on a website.
[For the lowdown on new tools that help protect your online reputation, read "Managing Your Reputation Online : 5 Essential Tools."]
What to Do When There's Dirt on You
But what do you do once you've found an accusatory comment or inappropriate picture online? As Laratro discovered, connecting with the blogger—or the webmaster, if that's the case—may not always be successful. And don't look to Google for help—it won't remove content from its search results (but does make a few exceptions).
Instead, you can attempt to bury the search results, says George Brown, an online media consultant who has worked with clients to improve their online reputations. "The goal is to get the negative results from appearing in the top 20 hits," he says. "People rarely look that far down when they search for you."
There are two easy ways to do this, Brown says, and they're applicable not only to people who have been associated with inappropriate or false content, but also to people who wish to proactively manage their reputations.
First, Brown says, "grab your name" on social media sites. That is, sign up for a Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and LinkedIn account.
For Facebook and LinkedIn, learn how to claim your vanity URL here and here, respectively. With YouTube and Twitter, be sure to choose a username as close to your real name as possible. MySpace will give you the option of obtaining a vanity URL when you register.
If you're concerned about the time it might take to keep up with all these profiles, don't be: Brown says that in updating them only once a month, Google will consider you an active member and will consistently rank these results high, since they're some of the most-visited sites on the Web. In addition to joining these social media sites, Brown also recommends creating a Google Profile, which also will rank high.
Another way to increase your "positive" search results: Purchase a domain with your name (which can run around $5 per month), Brown says. He recommends "shelving" this site—i.e. design it to say, "This site is being held for Your Name. To contact me, e-mail me at YourName@domain.com." If you discover online content with which you don't want to be associated, you can use this site to build additional pages, all of which will rank high on a Google search of you, since it contains your name in the URL.
"The bottom line is that you need to be aware of your personal brand," Mireles says. "Think about what you stand for, and determine whether that's what other people see when they search for you. You're going to create controversy in life because you can't please everyone, so taking the time to see what's out there and acting accordingly can be worth it."