“I'd heard that a lot of employers will do some due diligence online before interviewing people, but I didn’t have any type of online presence at the time—no Facebook, no LinkedIn, nothing,” says Kevin. “But I decided to Google myself, anyway, to see what came up.”
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What he found was another Kevin G., whose disturbing information was readily available online. “The Kevin G. who came up was a child sex offender,” Kevin says. “He has a different middle initial, and he’s in his sixties, while I’m in my twenties. But I didn’t think that potential employers would even get to those details. Instead, I saw them passing up on my résumé once they saw that the whole first page of search results for my name was from mugshots.com and bustedoffenders.com.”
Clearly, Kevin needed to do something—and fast. Luckily, a friend of his told him about a website called BrandYourself. It's one of many online reputation management services that claim to be able to swiftly clean up your digital profile. Depending on how much cyber-scrubbing needs to be done, these services can either be free or cost upwards of $1,000 a month.
But are they worth it?
To find out, we checked in with people just like Kevin who've used these popular sites for honest feedback on their digital revamps—as well as asked experts for advice on how you can improve your internet rep without shelling out a lot of cash.
The 411: How Online Reputation Management Works
Since the first big site, Reputation.com, launched in 2006, the business of online reputation management has grown exponentially. Reputation.com, which offers a "Reputation Defender" product that starts at $250 per month, now has 1.6 million customers in over 100 countries alone.
"Indeed, there are hundreds of consultants offering online reputation management services, dozens of firms that specialize in reputation management and a handful of big-name companies that have managed to cement their own reputation as the leaders of the pack," says Andy Beal, C.E.O. of the social media monitoring site Trackur and co-author of "Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online."
People who sign up with sites like BrandYourself and Reputation.com receive different services based on the packages and tools that they choose. For example, do-it-yourself products, which allow you to submit up to three links for search engine optimization and tracking advice, are free through BrandYourself. Meanwhile, the premium option costs $80 per year, and lets you submit an unlimited number of links to be optimized. There's even a $199 per-month concierge service—you’re basically hiring someone to do the work for you, like removing addresses and phone numbers from the web.
Even businesses use these services to help manage their online presence. “Our review management tools," says Leslie Hobbs, a director at Reputation.com, "make it possible for professionals and small and medium businesses to see what’s being posted about them in real time on many review sites and social media outlets, respond directly from the platform, analyze the content for trends—and even proactively ask customers for accurate feedback.”
Your digital image is usually the first impression your client will see of you ... and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
“We started the company when our co-founder [Pete Kistler] couldn’t get an internship because he was being mistaken for a criminal with the same name," says Patrick Ambron, C.E.O. and co-founder of BrandYourself. "Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to fix the problem himself, and traditional reputation companies quoted him at thousands of dollars per month. So we wanted to create tools and services that anybody could use, regardless of their situation.”
In Kevin G.'s case, he needed to build an online presence of his own before he could set himself apart from the sex offender who shared his name. “My friend recommended that I get on LinkedIn and Facebook,” Kevin says. “Then I set up an account with BrandYourself for free that walked me through changing a few settings on those pages to ensure that they are visible and searchable [by Google]. When I Google myself now, the information I want people to see is the first stuff I find, and the sex offender has been pushed off the first page.”
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Sue Scheff, who runs an advocacy group for at-risk teens, uses Reputation.com to protect herself from cyber-smears created by a disgruntled former client. “Their services are priceless,” says Scheff, who won a major internet defamation and invasion of privacy civil case against her online heckler and co-authored "Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet." “I always share with business people and professionals that your digital image is usually the first impression your client will see of you ... and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
How to Protect Your Online Rep—the D.I.Y. Way
That said, not everyone supports using an online reputation management service. Many critics argue that the sites don’t provide anything above and beyond what you can easily do yourself to protect your online identity. “All the digital reputation management stuff is out there for free," says B.J. Mendelson, author of "Social Media Is Bullshit." "And based on my own experience, it only takes a couple of hours to learn—and way less than that to manage it each week.”
Ivana Taylor, publisher of DIY Marketers, says that it's totally possible to safeguard your online reputation on your own. “These days, employees are like small businesses,” she says. “In a lot of ways, you are a brand, and like any other brand or product, you need to manage yourself.” Here are Taylor's top tips for shoring up your own online rep:
1. Set up Google alerts for your name
Head over to the Google alert page, and in less than 10 minutes, you can establish a name alert. This way, you’ll always be aware when something is being said about you online—positive or negative.
2. Complete those social media profiles
This is something that many employees and business owners fail to do, Taylor notes. “If you don’t exist on LinkedIn and Twitter, or worse, your profiles are incomplete, it leaves the barn door open to trash your reputation,” she says. “After all, if someone says something bad about you, and people search social media and see nothing or something incomplete about you, then whatever that person has written will carry more value.”
If you have a complete social media profile, it will also make it easier for employers to bring you in for an interview. “Think of it from their perspective,” Taylor says. “They are looking at hundreds of résumés. They search social media and don’t find anything for you, but they do find something for someone else. Who do you think they will call?”
3. Create a flood of positive content
Think of Google as your home page, Taylor advises. “When someone searches for your name or your company name, what they see on Google will form an impression of you," she says. "So if you constantly create content that's credible and valuable and reputable, then a single negative post or comment will simply get lost.”
4. Present yourself as you'd prefer to be perceived
People form impressions about you and your business by the way you appear online. “Using a party picture on LinkedIn doesn’t make a good impression, so take the time to have some professional-looking photos taken,” Taylor suggests. “This is a small investment up front, but it will pay off in the long term.”
Whether you use an online service or not, one thing is clear: Maintaining a squeaky-clean online presence should be high on your to-do list.
“Your digital identity—what’s revealed about you in simple search results—can impact your career, your finances and your personal and professional relationships,” says Tory Johnson, author of "Spark & Hustle: Launch and Grow Your Small Business Now." “Fairly or unfairly, we often believe what we read online, which means we’re all responsible for proactively managing our online persona.”