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Hiding Your Online Embarassments

At last! A strategy to clean up the “digital detritus” that I left all over the Internet before tweaking to the reality that, “What happens online, stays online . . . forever!” (See: ‘Dealing with ‘Online-Multiple Personality Disorder’)

Writing on Time magazine’s Techland blog, Allie Townsend outlines what steps you can take if you, like me, were initially careless in spreading content around the web under your real name; content that you wouldn’t want your mother , spouse, children, potential employers, or “the mob” to find out. (And, let’s face it – other than independently wealthy orphans in the federal witness protection program – isn’t that just about all of us?)

Ms. Townsend notes that, “there are entire businesses dedicated to helping companies detect and downplay unflattering search engine result pages (SERPs) by gaming the sophisticated algorithms used by major search engines.” This rather obscure branch of search engine optimization works, in effect, by burying unflattering corporate references under a wealth of other, more relevant (and presumably more flattering) pages.

Yet, while outsourcing what is known as “online reputation management” may work for most companies – with obvious exceptions, like BP and that whole “pesky” oil spill “thang” – its not practical (i.e., affordable and/or cost-effective) for poor scribes like me. Fortunately, Ms. Townsend throws a digital lifeline to those of us drowning in personal information we do not necessarily want associated with our individual “online brand.”

Google, Ms. Townsend notes, will not remove the embarrassing (but otherwise innocent) content you may have produced unless you can prove to them that “a search result is a threat to your personal security.” While that might work for our friends in the afore-mentioned witness protection program, that is far too high a threshold to clean up the digital footprints most of us have left behind. However, Adam Lasnik, one of Google’s search experts, did tell Ms. Townsend that individuals can and should “take control of their own presence.” He suggests utilizing social media profiles and/or personal blog pages as the most effective means of creating top search results that will effectively “bury” undesirable online personal content beneath a wealth of more relevant SERPs.

While Ms. Townsend observes (and rightly so) that “its easy for established journalist types to add bulk to their Google queues,” thereby effectively bumping the unwanted material to page 57 of Google’s search results where no one will ever find them, it is more difficult for Jane or John Doe. (Note, however, that if this is your actual name, then you can just stop reading this article right here.)

For the non-generic, non-digerati, Ms. Townsend suggests the following steps for hiding online embarrassments that just won’t go away:

    • Sign up for accounts on multiple social networking sites (starting with Facebook. Twitter and LinkedIn) which will usually outrank the SERPs containing the information you want to mask.
    • If the embarrassing information, blog or photo is on a smaller site, ask the site’s web master to remove your content. While this may not be a high percentage strategy, it’s worth a shot.
    • Create your own web page or personal blog, which is easy enough to do on point-and-click platforms like WordPress, Google’s Blogger or Tumblr. (Ms. Townsend advocates using these web pages and blogs as “professional branding” tools, “updating content with interesting articles or issues relating to your interests or line of work, [thereby] eliminating the need to add more personal information to the web.Finally, if all else fails, and your midnight ravings or compromising photos are just to potentially damaging, Ms. Townsend suggests:
    • Changing your name, or using another professional name; using that name on your resumé, and changing your social networking accounts to your new, faux-pas free, online identity.

      While this last-ditch strategy is likely to be effective in shielding unwanted online information from potential employers and business contacts, it won’t be effective in shielding your online embarrassments from your mother, spouse or children. For them, the federal witness protection program may be your only option.

      James Barry covers social media marketing and related topics for, a Toronto-based firm offering a full product line of SEO services.

      cc licensed flickr photo shared by Alex E. Proimos

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