Keely Kolmes, PsyD, faced an unnerving dilemma two years ago when she transitioned from working at the Stanford University counseling center to full-time private practitioner: 800 photos on Flickr, tied to an online nickname she'd used for more than 10 years. The photos weren't racy, but Kolmes felt uncomfortable that clients could use her pseudonym to discover so much about her personal life. So, she e-mailed the 15 friends who had pictures of her in their albums and asked them to de-tag the photos or make them private. It worked. A month later, a Google image search for the pseudonym no longer brought up images of her on Flickr.
Such steps may seem extreme, but in the Internet age, less-than-ideal photos, tweets and blog posts are only a Google search away, says Andy Beal, an expert on online reputations and co-author of Radically Transparent, a book that details ways to monitor, manage and repair online reputations. "If you're in a professional career in which your name is directly tied to your ability to get clients, like a therapist or attorney, the slightest indiscretion could affect your ability to earn a living," says Beal.
Here are steps you can take to ensure your Internet reputation reflects your professional achievements, not last year's raging kegger:
Monitor the web. Chances are, you have already Googled yourself to see what comes up. But have you searched for variations of your name? "John Smith" may reveal nothing but positive results, while "J. Smith, MA" may showcase an undesirable past. So check as many different ways to express your name and degree as you can think of.
Also, have search engines e-mail you whenever someone posts your name in a newspaper story, blog or other website. Visit Google Alerts. The service will send you updates whenever your name appears in a new context. Other sites such as Trackur and GigaAlert offer free services for single search phrases or allow you to set up alerts for multiple keywords for a small fee.
Enlist friends, site administrators and — if needed — attorneys. If you find something online that you'd rather not have public, removing it can be as easy as deleting an old Friendster account or asking your friends to take your name off their blogs. You can also e-mail site administrators to ask them to remove content. Kolmes recommends a polite but firm note that outlines why you need the content removed. Most site administrator emails can be found in the fine print at the bottom of a website or in the "contact" section. Usually your request will be fulfilled in a few days, but if not, follow up, says Beal.
If a website defames your character, you may want to hire a lawyer to write a cease-and-desist letter, says Beal. That may only work, though, if the posting is false. If a report about your reckless driving appears in the local paper, it's nearly impossible to get the content removed. In legit cases, says Beal, the letter will result in the content's immediate removal since legal action can quickly become costly for both parties.
Bury unsavory content underneath new publications. Many people will only wade through the first page or two of your search results, so add new content — perhaps on a blog — that burnishes your online image, says Beal. Since new entries are more likely to top search results, post once every few months about your new academic papers or your charity work. Beal also recommends registering a domain name to link any updated content directly to your name, or creating a blog using your full name.
Watch your security settings. Carefully read the security policy of the social networking sites you use, says Kolmes. "Many people accidentally share content by rushing through the set-up phase of their social networking sites," says Kolmes. "It really pays to take the time to understand the settings and adjust them for the maximum privacy." Watch for website changes too, she adds. Sites that are secure now may change their policies, allowing content you thought was secure to suddenly become public. So check your security settings frequently to catch any changes that may affect your content, says Kolmes.