Your online reputation includes the content returned when your name or email address is queried in Google, Yahoo, or the new people-search websites such as Spock.com. This content includes news, personal web sites, participation in blogs, forums, and social media sites, even photos and videos. The internet has become the place where second and even first impressions are very often made.

According to Search Engine Watch, there are 25 to 50 million proper-name searches performed each day. Beyond curiosity, people “Google” other people to verify credentials, assess reputation, and to look for a method of contact. A 2007 survey showed that 50% of hiring officials use the internet to vet job applications.

This has both strong positive and negative implications. Websites such a Ratemyteachers.com and Rottenneighbor.com make it easy for anonymous individuals to post malicious personal attacks on the internet. More common are examples of jobs lost, promotions denied, and job offers never made due to information that individuals posted about themselves on sites such as Facebook or Myspace. And perhaps, the most common are cases of embarrassing mistaken identity–when a stranger who happens to share your name posts information you’d prefer not to be associated with.

There is already plenty of information posted about us online, whether we want it there or not. The important thing is to make sure this information reflects positively on our name, work, and character. Fortunately, with a little effort, we can influence what people find when they search for us. Here are a seven steps you can take to establish, protect and enhance your virtual reputation.

#1: Use Common Sense – Information posted online is often available for many years, especially to determined seekers. The easiest way to protect your virtual reputation is to avoid posting seemingly-fun-but-potentially-embarrassing information about yourself, especially on social network sites, in public forums, and under your own name. Even college students are learning not to write about their hangovers and hookups online.

If you are writing about a controversial subject, it’s often best to post anonymously (when possible). Otherwise use a pseudonym and try to post in private, password protected forums. Still, be cautious. Pseudonyms can be deciphered, and just because information is originally posted in a private forum doesn’t mean it will stay there. Remember, especially online, you only get one reputation.

#2: Set up a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is a very easy, positive, and free way to summarize professional accomplishments, connect with colleagues and partners, and promote yourself online. It is fast becoming an essential resource for hiring and HR departments. LinkedIn is Google-friendly, so your LinkedIn profile will show up via a Google search. People-search programs like Spock.com rely on LinkedIn. Also, on LinkedIn you are in strict control of your profile, and only connect to trusted contacts.

#3: Buy an internet domain in your name (such as www.edwardshepard.com), or as close to your name as possible. There are malicious individuals who have purchased domains in other people’s names, solely to post derogatory and false information about them. While this could happen to anyone, people who work in public service are especially vulnerable. I own Edwardshepard.com, Edwardshepard.net, and Edwardshepard.org. It costs me less than $20 to own all three for two years, and I can easily renew for up to five years at a time. This prevents someone else from making a website that makes me look bad, either on purpose or accidentally. I can make myself look bad enough, thank you very much.

There are many good websites where you can purchase a domain in your name. Many offer web hosting on top of domain registration. Popular registrars include Godaddy.com, Google.com, and (most expensive) Networksolutions.com. I use IntuitiveISP.com, because a friend founded the company.

#4: A personal website is one of the most powerful tools for protecting your online reputation. Establish at least a basic website with information about yourself, preferably at the domain you purchased above. Many domain registrars include free, basic webpage hosting services. Alternately, many web hosts offer free domain registration. Your website can be very simple, with your name, some basic information about you, a public email address, and a link to your LinkedIn profile. Your website is also a good place to showcase your special interests and expertise. Don’t be afraid to have fun with your website, as long as it’s tasteful and ultimately reflects well on you. Also, most modern website creation packages include the ability to password-protect certain pages, where you can post private information for select friends and family.

Even if you don’t want to buy a domain, there are some great, easy-to-use free blog and website hosting companies. My favorites are Blogger.com, Google Pages, Tumblr.com, and Weebly.com. These typically provide an URL that includes your name (www.edwardshepard.tumblr.com). I will cover these and other free, high quality website creation tools in a future article.

#5: If you use social networking sites (Facebook, Myspace, etc), be sure to polish your profile. Most online social networks give you a fair amount of control over what information is shared in your profile. For many professionals, less is more. Simply posting your name and profession is often best. Addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates are best kept private (especially as these can be tools for identity thieves).

#6: Use Google Alerts: You can receive an automatic email (for free) from Google anytime Google discovers a new webpage with your name. This is very easy to set up, and you can control how many times a day, week or month you receive the alert. You can also do this for your school or business. Of course, if your name happens to be “Brad Pitt” or “Brit Spears,” you will get lots of bogus alerts. On the other hand, this can be an easy way to find out if people online are talking about you.

#7. Consider third-party reputation management solutions. Companies such as Naymz.com/ (free) can help you positively nurture your virtual reputation. Wink.com (free) shows your online profile, and can help you you to dispute it. Reputationdefender.com (fee-based) not only shows you what’s being said about you, but actually provides tools for you to get rid of the content you don’t like.

We must consider that our virtual reputation is as important as our real-world reputation. Fortunately, with just a little effort, we can gain enhanced professional and networking capabilities when we do this.

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