Today, everyone has a personal brand to protect. I’ve been online since 1983, and my digital footprint is long. There are three things I have to worry about when someone searches for me online.
- Is it really me they’re finding? I have a common name, and variations of the name “Debbie” were popular among Baby Boomers. I hoped when I married Fred Holland that there would be fewer Deb Hollands out there, but there are actually more. Some of the people who share my name aren’t people I would want to share anything else with, like the one with the mile-long criminal history, or the one who seems to make a habit of opening credit card accounts with “no credit” card companies, and then defaulting. Sometimes it’s funny — for instance Dr. Deborah McAlister delivered my grandson Zachary McAlister. And Deb Holland, born the same year I was, died the day I married my husband and is buried near his father in a small East Texas cemetery.
- Is the information accurate? The first time I used a search engine to look my name up, I cringed at the number of things that came up that were just plain wrong. Over the years, I’ve tried to correct things as I found them, with some success — and some instances where people simply refused to correct their data, even when presented with a mountain of evidence that it’s wrong. As recently as this week, I found a company called Intelius selling an expensive, and quite bogus, report that purports to list my past addresses and business history. They got some things right — notably a list of my relatives, though I’ve never heard of some of the people they listed — and nearly everything else wrong.
- Is it my fault? Sometimes, when the search engines turn up data that makes me cringe, I realize that it’s my fault. I have said things that I regretted, left outdated registrations and profiles up on sites I don’t use anymore, and occasionally been less than careful about my “likes” and online associations. For the last few years, I’ve been a lot more careful, and I also started the simple practice of never registering for anything — or commenting on anything — unless I use my real name. By making sure I limit my comments to “my” brand, it’s easier for me to track myself — and it’s a much less tempting to say something I’ll regret later when I know that I’m signing it with my real name! (I tried using my real name the first time I went into a chatroom — not realizing that CompuServe displayed user names with the city immediately after the name — so I became Deb/Dallas. Not the best way to get introduced to the online world right after the porn film “Debbie Does Dallas” at a time when men out numbered women online by 9:1.)
Another thing to think about is online safety. I have a friend who uses the Foursquare app on her iPhone to publish her whereabouts as she moves around in a city a few miles from the Mexican border — a place where kidnapping for ransom is practically the national pastime. She’s fearless, but I’m not. The thought of someone sneaking up on me using the “I’m in the room” alerts makes my skin crawl almost as much as the thought of publishing my whereabouts to would-be robbers or kidnappers.
Michael Fertik has an excellent post on safety considerations relating to social media at Silicon Valley Watcher. It reminds us all to limit the location information we publish, erase or eliminate information from old sites, and try to lock down our own names on new social media sites as they are published. There’s also a great list of common sense safety tips for Gowalla, Google Places, and Foursquare at the Social Media Explorer site.
In our book Slimed Online: How to get your reputation back in spite of Google, David Coursey and I show just how bad it can get — and what to do about it after a search engine is reporting damaging information about you.
Hopefully, most of the people reading this blog aren’t in that position. if you haven’t yet encountered a problem with your online reputation, check out the Next Web’s Social Media blog, which published a beginner’s guide to the very first steps in managing your online reputation. This is the stuff EVERYONE should do, long before there is known problem. Check it out, and if you haven’t taken these baby steps towards managing your reputation, do it now.