Illustration: Monika Aichele
We know that the Internet is a vast, untamed wilderness, but it turns out that you have more control over your little plot of digital ground than you might think. Here's a starter kit for creating an online profile from scratch—or overhauling the one you've already got.Be vigilant. Typing your name into Google isn't (just) an act of vanity—it's part of what Internet experts call reputation management. (When googling common—or commonly misspelled—names, include relevant information such as your company or hometown.) For a summary of the info about you that exists online, visit PeekYou.com or Snitch.Name . If you discover a link with sensitive private data (your Social Security number, for instance—it happens!), you can try to erase it using Google's URL Removal Tool ( Google.com/webmasters/tools/removals ). But you'll likely have better luck if you initiate human-to-human contact with the site in question. Go to the Contact or About page, find an e-mail address or—preferably—telephone number for its webmaster, and respectfully make your case.
Own your name. Say you're a teacher with a disgruntled student posting nasty comments about you on RateMyProfessors.com , or a job-seeker whose first Google result is a fiery opinion piece you wrote a decade ago for your college newspaper—not a first impression you want to make on a prospective employer. To push cringeworthy links lower in the Google rankings, register with the major social-networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn), create a Google profile ( Google.com/profiles ), and even consider purchasing your own URL ($1.99 per year for new domain owners; GoDaddy.com ). "Search engines tend to rank pages about an individual that the person actually 'owns' higher than something by a third party," says Scott Skurnick, a search engine optimization executive in Los Angeles. The negative content won't disappear entirely, but take heart: Experts say most searchers never even make it to the second page of results.
Next: How to network online
Be human (not a spam bot). Blogging and other forms of social media can be narcissistic time-wasters, sure, but they can also be potential gold mines for job seekers and budding entrepreneurs. Just ask Luisa Weiss, who parlayed her recipe blog, The Wednesday Chef, into a dream job as a cookbook editor, or Gary Vaynerchuk, a wine retailer who used Twitter to promote his Wine Library video blog and leveraged the exposure into a seven-figure book deal and a new career as a marketing guru. "A lot of entrepreneurs use their blog or Twitter page the wrong way," Skurnick says. "A company will only post about its new products, or journalists will pop up only to announce a new article. They're not being human." Treat your posts, tweets, and status updates as an ongoing conversation that reflects your voice and personality. And don't forget the essentials: your name at the top of the site, a Contact button, and a carefully crafted About page.
Start networking. If you do take the plunge into blogging or maintaining your own site (get started at WordPress.com or Tumblr.com ), link to well-established sites related to your field of expertise, and ask friends and contacts to link to you. Search engines generally prioritize sites ending in .edu and .gov, so if you have contacts in higher education or the government who will link to your site, the connections may boost your Google rankings.
Know your terminology. Say you're starting a daycare center: When writing copy for your business website, you'll want to know if potential clients will more likely search for "daycare," "childcare," or "babysitters." To research the answer, go to Google's Keyword Research Tool ( Google.com/sktool ). And pay attention to your "anchor text," the underlined words that users click on to visit a different page. Click here means nothing to a search engine, but Find a childcare provider says a lot.