Protect Your Online Reputation

Protect Your Online Reputation

By Michelle Hainer

It all started when Susan Wilson Solovic, the CEO of a news web site with small business content, wanted a way to connect with her younger employees. "Most of them were interested in MySpace and I wanted to learn more about it," Solovic says.

So she created a profile at the social networking site. Since MySpace allows users to interact with each other by becoming "friends," Solovic was able to look at the blogs and web pages of her employees. What she found astounded her. "One of my employees wrote about how unhappy he was at his job and how we had been treating him unfairly," says Solovic, who later spoke to her employee about his blog content. "He felt very bad and immediately took it down, but it damaged a level of trust. Once you put something in writing, it's hard to take it back."

Unlike a piece of paper that you can rip into a million pieces and toss into the garbage, what you write or post online can live forever. While many teens and college kids think it's fun and harmless to post pictures or videos of themselves guzzling beers or wearing skimpy clothing, it can come back to haunt them in the future. This is especially true when they're trying to get into college or impress a prospective employer. According to a recent report by Viadeo, a business social network, one in five employers find information on the Internet about job candidates, and 59 percent said what they find influences their hiring decisions.

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you -- or your tech-savvy kids -- click the upload button:

No. 1: Use passwords and privacy settings 
Social networking sites, like Myspace and Facebook, allow users to keep their profiles private, so only people they approve can see what they've posted. It's smart to make use of this feature, especially if your profile page has a blog to share diary-like thoughts. "Potential recruiters or employers don't need to know about your personal drama," says Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online (St. Martin's Griffin). Goodstein also advises teens not to post liquor advertisements, pictures of pot leaves, or violent or sexually explicit song lyrics on their web pages. "Even if they aren't drinking or smoking pot, it can give the impression that they are," she says.

No. 2: Take charge of your bio 
Type your name into a search engine and see what comes up. Google also has an "alerts" feature which tells users when a certain word or phrase pops up on the Internet. Creating an alert with your own name is a way to monitor any new information that may appear. Solovic did this and discovered one site had really outdated information about her business. Luckily, the site's hosts were willing to correct it. But often times it can be difficult to amend online information. For a monthly fee, Reputation Defender will scour the Internet on your behalf and work to remove any inaccuracies.

No. 3: Ask about archiving 
While doing a web search, have you ever noticed that some of the results are marked as cached? This means that whether or not the web page is still accessible, the search engine has taken a snapshot of it. In other words, just because your recent college-grad took down a web site featuring her embarrassing Spring Break photos, it doesn't mean the site is gone forever. Before posting anything on the Internet, first find out if the site is protected by Robots.txt, advises David Axtell, an intellectual property and information technology attorney with law firm Leonard, Street and Deinard in Minneapolis. Pages that use Robots.txt can't be archived by a search engine. To find out if a site can be archived, contact the web site host provider. Or, log onto The Internet Archive and type the name of site into their Way Back Machine. If the site pops up, that means it can be archived -- forever.

While it's true that the Internet can be an amazing resource, you need to exercise some old fashioned common sense when posting aspects of your life online. "You have to think, 'Is this something I'd feel comfortable having on the evening news?'" Solovic says. "And if it's not, then you shouldn't be putting it online."

Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer and editor in New York.