Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to post that video from your bachelor party in Vegas. Or to include a recipe for pot brownies in your otherwise above-board food blog. Or to rant about your former employer -- specifically, about the CEO’s bad haircut and body odor -- on an industry message board.
Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to do any of the other infinitely creative, breathtakingly easy and completely dumb things the Internet allows you to do with just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks.
But you did, and now you’re sorry as you head out into the job market with an online reputation to repair.
No one knows how many job candidates worry about how their online reputation can affect their job prospects, but anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are realizing that what they do online -- and what others say about them online -- can play a role in determining whether they get hired or fired. Post a video, and it may be online forever -- no matter how stupid it makes you look. The same goes for blog posts, forum discussions, photo albums and even emails you send to friends. (You never know what will spread from the private sphere to the public realm.) The point is painfully obvious: You need to be thoughtful and deliberate when conducting your life online.
But what happens when it’s too late? Here’s how you can attempt to undo the damage.
Scope Out the Damage
First, determine what damaging information exists. Enter your name at Google, MSN and Yahoo and see what turns up in the first four or five pages of results. Anything troubling? Mark it for action. Then sign up for the alerts available at spots like Google Alerts; when information about you is added or updated, you’ll find out via email.
Monitoring your reputation in this manner is time-consuming, so you may want assistance. Reputation.com's ReputationDefender provides paid members with monthly search reports that detail the information available about them on blogs, photo and video sites, news sources and social networking hubs like Facebook and MySpace.
An item doesn’t need to be outrageous to hurt your job prospects. “If it raises a shadow of a doubt about the candidate, the employer is not going to hire that person,” says Ross Chanin, vice president of operations for ReputationDefender.
So you did something stupid -- maybe a month ago, maybe a decade ago. Now you want to make sure no one finds that record of your stupidity. Scott Allen, coauthor of The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online, advocates burying the bad with the good. That means creating new content about yourself, such as a blog or Web site. “It’s not that you can make the stuff disappear,” he says. “It’s that you make so much more good stuff that you can’t find the bad stuff.”
Just be sure you create worthwhile material. If possible, Allen says, publish your writing at respected sources, such as industry publications. After all, publishing your own material goes only so far. “If it’s obvious it came from you, it can only do so much,” he says.
You may be able to have the material removed, but remember that much of what appears online is archived at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit initiative designed to be a resource for historians and researchers.
If you believe you have a strong case to have material removed, don’t come out swinging. “That can cause more bad PR for you,” Allen says. Instead, take a soft stance: Explain your reasons for wanting the material removed and assume the owner of the site (or the owner’s representative) is reasonable and will listen. If the information is inaccurate, defamatory or libelous, point that out.
Just be sure to learn as much as possible about the site before making your move. If you’re dealing with an in-your-face blog, sending an email to the blogger requesting that something about you be removed can backfire. Bloggers have been known to post those emails, so be aware that your request could end up casting more unfavorable attention on you.
As for search engines, don’t bother. You won’t have any luck asking them to rig their results in your favor.
Hire a Service
A growing number of services can help you manage or clean up your online reputation. Along with Reputation.com, these services include Defendmyname and Naymz. But managing your reputation doesn’t always come cheap. Reputation.com offers services starting at $3,000 annually. Under these plans, the company uses a variety of tactics to improve your online reputation and ensure that the positive material about you rises to the top of search-engine results.
Reputation matters, and if you’re not diligent, you may end up paying a very high price.