Have you Googled yourself lately? You might be surprised by what you find. An online search of your name can unearth any number of unfortunate results, including, but not limited to:
- The news article from six years ago in which you were misquoted as saying, “Profits are not a priority.”
- The blog of a disgruntled shareholder who isn’t above name-calling.
- An online, bulletin-board discussion in which you engaged in a very colorful debate with a dissatisfied customer.
- The arrest sheet of a convicted felon who shares your name.
- The resumé of an adult film star who also shares your name.
The list goes on. Although the Internet offers both companies and individuals a cost-efficient, ubiquitous tool to distribute information, it has also become a repository of personal photos, data, emails, blogs and news items dating back decades—some of which can haunt individuals and companies for years.
Unfortunately, once things are on the Net, they’re there to stay, much to the chagrin of some executives who wish they weren’t. “One of the most common mistakes CEOs make about managing their online presence is the idea that they can ‘delete’ items from Google,” says Julie Murphy, senior vice president and partner with Sage Communications. As Google’s own CEO, Eric Schmidt, admitted last year during an appearance at New York University. “The lack of a delete button on the Internet is a significant issue,” he said.
It’s an issue on a variety of fronts. Often, the first thing that potential customers, employers, employees, business partners and media will do when researching you or your company is to Google you. “At the end of the day, your online impression—or in some cases, lack thereof—does reflect on who you are. It may not be the deciding factor, but it matters,” says Nels Olson, vice chair- man and co-leader of the CEO and Board Practice for Korn/Ferry International.
A standard part of Korn/Ferry’s vetting process for executive candidates is to do online searches and to look beyond just the first page of Google. “We’ll go a number of pages back.” Olson points out that since the hiring company will inevitably do the same searches on the candidate, some negative material can put an otherwise outstanding candidate on the back burner. The most common culprit? Photos taken at industry events showing no small amount of celebratory imbibing. “Mostly it’s around unprofessional behavior,” he says.
While there is no way to delete items, there are proactive ways to deal with the debris of previous gaffes and to clean up your online media profile—or prevent it from becoming tarnished in the first place. Here are some tips from the experts for putting your best virtual foot forward.
Google yourself. Like any problem, you can’t fix it until you know what it is. Google your own name and be sure to look at the first three pages, minimum. Use a variety of search terms—with your company’s name, with the city or cities where you’ve lived, with a board you sit on or a charitable organization you involved with. Make sure to get an objective picture of your online presence, suggests Lorrie Ross, CEO of Web Marketing Therapy, a marketing agency and training company. To do that, you may need to delete the “cookies” file from your browser. This file, which stores your personal web site travels and preferences, can cause your Google search to bring up more favorable results when searching your own name.
“The search engines give a biased view based on what you like,” says Ross. “Do a clean search and see what others are seeing.” If you have a LinkedIn account (and you should), log out of it and then search for yourself to see which information is publicly available. Do the same with Facebook and Google Plus. Keep in mind that finding very little about yourself can be as problematic as finding negative information. “Not participating is no longer a solution in today’s environment,” says Tripp Donnelly, SEO expert at SpamZilla, an online reputation-management company specializing in search engine optimization, or SEO.
Search and destroy. While there will be a lot of content you can’t delete, there will also be a lot over which you do have control. The photo you posted to Facebook of your family on a lavish vacation may not play well during a period of stock volatility or market recession; delete it to keep it from popping up in Google’s photo results. Change all of your personal-pro- file privacy settings to the strictest possible to keep them from appearing in online search results.When the negative content appears as defamatory content on another person’s blog or on a media outlet’s website, your options are more limited. You can pursue legal action, but it’s often difficult to get the resolution you’d ideally like, explains Richard Lee, a founder and co-managing partner with the law firm Salisian Lee in Los Angeles. First, if the defendant can prove he or she, or the organization, had a good faith belief in the truth of the material, libel will be very difficult to prove.
“Even a successful resolution to these types of lawsuits— which are costly and often a waste of time, as there are a num- ber of defenses to defamation—will typically result only in monetary damages for the harm caused,” says Lee. “The suits won’t eliminate those negative web hits, unless one can obtain a court order or injunction to take down the offending website.”
Push the dirt to the bottom. While you can’t delete negative information that appears on external websites, you can bury it beneath a deluge of positive content. That will, over time, force the negative data to drop lower in the ranking of Google hits. Over 90 percent of all search traffic is on the first page of Google results, with 99.3 percent in the top two pages, says Donnelly. To crudely summarize the search process: a Google program called “Googlebot” uses a method called “crawling” to search billions of web pages and create an ever-growing and changing index. When a user enters a query, the Googlebot machines search the index for matching pages and return the results deemed most relevant, based on more than 200 factors. The more content you create that can be easily searched and indexed by the Googlebot, the lower you’ll push the unsavory items. “Ninety-plus percent of Internet users instinctively ‘trust’ Google page one content, shaping purchasing decisions and corporate perceptions around what is presented on the first page of a search,” says Donnelly.
Fill out your virtual profile. One of the easiest ways to create positive content is to use the tools already available to publicize your professional profile. A recent survey by business-in- telligence software company Domo and CEO.com found that 68 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on any of the major social networks—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google Plus. LinkedIn is the most popular network for CEOs; but even then, only 140 of the 500 have LinkedIn profiles. Adoption of Twitter is growing, but still just 5.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are users of the tool.
Those are missed opportunities, particularly given that LinkedIn profiles often come up on Google’s page one. If you have no profile, or your profile is missing a photo or lists your current job as the position you held five years ago, you’re not getting the benefits you could be. “LinkedIn is a sleeping giant,” says Murphy, noting that while Facebook has garnered more attention, LinkedIn is the professional niche tool. “It does need to be more real-time engagement, but it’s going to get there.”
She suggests taking full advantage of the section that allows you to describe who you are. Add your philanthropic activity, passionate pursuits and any other positive material that puts a more personal face on your corporate image.
Write your own story. Consider creating a web page for yourself, says Donnelly. “It’s not intended to be self-promotional or self-congratulatory. But the best person to tell your story is you,” he says, adding that CEOs should purchase their personal domain names and those of their family members as added protection, “even when you don’t want to launch personal content.” Ross notes that it takes little time to post content that already exists, such as positive news releases and articles in which you are quoted, as well as YouTube videos of speeches and photos of your participation in community activities. “Make sure they are tagged with your full name,” she says.
The next level is to publish new, positive content that not only pushes down the negative, but establishes you as a thought leader in your industry, so that when a potential client, partner or employer searches for experts on a topic, your name will come up in the list. “We’re seeing a lot more executive blogs for that reason,” says Murphy. The more “hits” that content receives, the higher up it will climb in Google searches for your name. That said, blogs are challenging to maintain for busy CEOs. “They’re a huge time-sink; and if you’re going to put content out there, it really needs to be good,” she says. Often, creating and managing this content for senior executives is the purview of the company’s media-relations team. Increasingly, managing social media content for the company is becoming distributed across departments, rather than having one social media manager on the case.
Use caution with social media. Powerful tools for both good and ill, online platforms have invited no small number of gaffes on the part of executives and companies over the past several years.
John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, first went through the wringer in 2007 after it was discovered that he had, over a seven-year period, masqueraded as an anonymous Whole Foods fan on Yahoo’s financial bulletin boards, praising his own company’s products and criticizing those of competitor Wild Oats. (The two companies have since merged.) He apologized, but even now, seven years later, a search of John Mackey on Google will still pull up a 2010 New Yorker article that talks about the embarrassing gaffe. “Today, with social media, people are less tolerant of not having full transparency,” notes Murphy. “And good companies make mistakes.”
Another case in point: JPMorgan’s lesson that the best-laid social media plans can go terribly awry. The same day Twitter went public—with underwriting help from JPMorgan—the investment bank initiated a live Twitter Q&A about leadership and career advice with one of its senior executives, Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee. The firm’s tweet asked followers to submit questions with the hashtag “#AskJPM.” The request was quickly met with a deluge of sarcastic jokes and comments—18,669 tweets in the first 24 hours—lampooning the firm for a lack of ethics. The Q&A session was canceled, but the damage had already been done. “They had good intentions, but they should have realized that wasn’t the right forum,” says Murphy.
Build the ark before the flood. If Google doesn’t bring up any negative information associated with your name, now is the perfect time to get proactive about managing your online reputation, says Donnelly. “Launching new content, putting thought leadership out there, actively monitoring what’s out there—that’s a lot less painful and a lot less costly than coping with a crisis. It’s very difficult to get torpedoes back in the boat.”