The embarrassing tweet. The drunken party photos. The DUI arrest. The messy divorce or business scandal. When it comes to the Internet, there are no secrets. If people are searching for you, what they find isn't necessarily what you want them to see.
"Google is increasingly becoming your first impression, but it's getting increasingly harder to take control of that impression," said Patrick Ambron, co-founder of BrandYourself.com, part of the growing "online reputation management" industry.
Whether it's a new college graduate looking for a first job, a single jumping into the online dating world or a business owner stung by negative publicity, almost everyone has some online history they'd like to bury. And that's the problem. On the Web, it's virtually impossible to erase anything entirely.
That has helped spur growth in the "reputation-management" industry. Companies like BrandYourself, ReputationChanger.com, Reputation.com and others help individuals and companies put their best foot forward online.
The key: Pushing the "good stuff" about you to the top of a Google search, while suppressing the negative. "Almost 94 percent of Google searches don't go beyond the first page. You can push things down to the third or fourth page, that's the closest you can come to erasing things from the Internet," said Michael Zammuto, president of ReputationChanger.com. Here's how:
Populate yourself: It's like a positive PR campaign where you want to get yourself on as many online platforms and links as you can: A personal website, LinkedIn and other social media profiles, a YouTube video with your name in the headline. Post some articles, a lecture, a link to something about or by you in writing. "The intent is to make those things in the eyes of the search engine more authoritative. Then Google will naturally rank those things higher," Zammuto said.
Don't engage: For businesses, Zammuto said it's natural to want to wage war against negative posts, especially those on customer review sites like Yelp.com. Restaurants and service-oriented businesses are especially vulnerable to nasty comments by anonymous bloggers. Hard as it sounds, ignore them, said Zammuto. "Stop going on there and defending it. If you get into a debate with an anonymous person with a chip on their shoulder, it's not worth it. It will make (the debate) rank higher in searches for your company's name."
Do it yourself: While reputation-management firms may charge fees, there also are sites that cater to everyday people. BrandYourself.com, started in New York by two young entrepreneurs in 2012, offers free and paid services. It lets you create a free profile page, as well as submit up to three sources — say, your LinkedIn profile or a mention on your company's website. It reviews those, then gives tips to make them more appealing to Google search engines. For those wanting expanded help, it offers paid services for $80 a year and up.
Youthful escapades also can be problematic. Zammuto worked with a young Drexel University business major mortified by sexually explicit photos taken by a boyfriend that frequently showed up when she Googled her own name. She had dropped out of social media altogether.
Wrong approach, said Zammuto. He advises getting lots of new content posted. Eventually, those professional images will help push the more salacious ones deeper into Google's recesses.
Buy your name: Zammuto recommends going to domain sites, like GoDaddy.com, and buying your name.
"Buy your 'firstnamelastname.com,' as well as .net and .org," he said. "With each of those sites, put up different content. You're trying to take up slots on a Google search page."
DIY tools: Scott Eggert, director of digital communications for Merlot Marketing in Sacramento, Calif., recommends setting up three: Google Alerts, which sends an e-mail any time your name (or any selected search topic) appears online; Newsle.com, which sends e-mail alerts when your name (or anyone else's you choose) is published in news articles or online blog posts; and Mention.net, which covers the "nooks and crannies," such as social media mentions. Eggert said setting up a free Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts) for your name is a good first step. "Most people should do that, if they have any online exposure at all. " Another recommended site: Completed.com, which lets you create an online showcase of your accomplishments and professional successes.