Your Online Reputation is Toast

Have you Googled yourself lately? You may not like what you find.

(A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of US Airways Magazine.)

by Dan Tynan

They used to call it Ego Surfing. Type your own name into a search engine and see how many matches turned up. If you got more hits than your best buddy, you earned geek bragging rights for the day.

This was back when search engines were more of an interesting curiosity and not The Future of All Commerce. Run the same search today and it’s no longer a game. Because your ability to get a job, find a mate, make friends and influence people may soon depend on what’s displayed on that results page.

It’s no longer who you are that matters, it’s who the search engines think you are. As their power grows, our ability to control our online reputations is slipping away.

Roughly one out of three searches performed on the Internet are for a person. Employers, admissions officers, potential spouses – everybody wants to play detective on you. To feed this beast, people-oriented search engines like Spock, Wink, and ZoomInfo scurry across the Net, scooping up information about you and presenting it in easily digestible form.

When Spock profiles you, its software bot automatically adds ‘tags’ – words or phrases that describe you. For example, Barry Bonds’ tags include “baseball player,” “home run,” and “steroids.” Click on any of them, and you’ll see a list of everyone else on Spock who shares that tag.

But when the bot makes a mistake, bad things can happen. Like the prominent liberal blogger who was wrongly tagged as a “pedophile” by Spock because he happened to write about former Congressman Mark Foley. Or when ZoomInfo’s bot confused two guys with the same name – one an Internet CEO, the other a figure from the porn industry.

Of course, when it comes to online reputations, Spock and ZoomInfo are fleas on the back of a 10,000-pound gorilla named Google.

“Google is no longer just a search engine; it’s a reputation engine,” says Chris Dellarocas, a business professor at the University of Maryland who studies how online reputations are formed. But this is not necessarily a bad thing – especially if your Google rep is good (or at least accurate).

“The Net lets us get more precise information about individuals, which leads to new levels of transparency,” Dellarocas says. “This gives us incentives to be better people.”

In other words, if the guy you just cut off in traffic can post your name and license plate to the Bad Driver Blog, you may be more courteous the next time you’re behind the wheel. (We have met Big Brother, and he is us.)

One problem with this scenario is that some people are so transparent they’re invisible. It’s incredibly easy for someone to post false or malicious information anonymously on a message board or blog, which can end up in your Google search results. Unearthing their true identities usually requires more money and lawyers than most of us can muster.

Dellarocas says Google will need to provide tools that let you put search results into context and rate each source’s credibility – so you can flag results from disgruntled employees and embittered ex-spouses. (Google News is experimenting with something similar, allowing people mentioned in a news story to add their own point of view after the story has been published.)

Ultimately, though, the price of Internet liberty is eternal vigilance. Has your reputation been poisoned by someone’s blog? Post comments to it showing what a reasonable human being you are. Log onto the people search engines and correct mistakes. Don’t put anything on Facebook or MySpace you wouldn’t want your mother to see. If all that fails, you can sign up with services like Reputation Defender, which will try to remove the negative stuff from the Web and post positive things about you instead.

Google yourself, early and often. It’s not egotism. It’s survival.


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