Fix Your Online Reputation

You can probably polish your profile yourself.

Googling yourself isn’t narcissistic. It’s necessary. If you track your digital trail with a quick online search, you may be surprised by the depth and breadth of information available about you.

In addition to Google, enter your name into Spokeo.com (opens in new tab) and Pipl.com (opens in new tab), where you might find that your age, relatives’ names and previous addresses are on display, as well as links to old news stories and, say, a forgotten MySpace account. And head to Topsy.com (opens in new tab) to examine what people are saying about you on social media.

Find something unflattering? You can fix most online reputation problems without help.

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Do it yourself. “The average Joe should be able to fix his problem on his own,” says Brian Patterson, of Go Fish Digital, an online marketing firm. Start by beefing up the privacy settings on your social media feeds and deleting that old Flickr account and outdated personal Web site. You can delete search results about you from some information-sharing sites, such as Spokeo (opens in new tab) and BeenVerified (opens in new tab). For other sites, send an e-mail asking them to remove your personal data. If you can’t get a malicious Web site to remove information that would make you vulnerable to ID thieves, such as your Social Security or bank account number, ask Google to delete the site from its search results (opens in new tab).

The joke in the online-reputation biz goes like this: Where do you bury a dead body? On the third page of Google. Few surfers ever get that far, so if there’s an unprofessional post that you can’t delete, grab a shovel and start digging. Build a Web site using a free template, from a site such as Weebly.com (opens in new tab) or WordPress.com (opens in new tab), with your first and last name as the domain name (about $12.99 on GoDaddy). Open LinkedIn and professional Twitter accounts and a Facebook page, and spend a few minutes every week keeping them active. If you want to differentiate yourself from someone with the same name, add a middle initial to your online presence. Put a Google Alert on your name at www.google.com/alerts (opens in new tab) to track online mentions.

Getting help. If you’re a rare case with an online reputation problem that won’t stay six feet under, professional help might be the only solution. That’s true in cases in which your profile is dominated by unflattering news stories, bad client reviews, details of a lawsuit or negative Web sites targeting you (if your name is in the URL, such sites will rank especially high on Google).

But remember that a reputation-management firm can’t force your local newspaper to delete a negative story or an angry former client to kill a bad review. (A recent high-profile case in Europe that allows citizens to petition search engines to remove some data does not apply to Americans.) A pro can bury negative posts faster and deeper than you can, however. The reputation company might create third-party search-engine-optimized sites that link to each other to push positive content up and negative results down. It can help you build your own Web site and update professional profiles while tracking your name online.

Shop around for a repu­tation-management firm, such as Reputation.com (opens in new tab) or Removeyourname.com (opens in new tab). Look for a company that has handled cases that are similar to yours. Ask for referrals from cus­tomers to make sure the company’s strategies work. Prices range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the severity of the problem and the kind of services you buy.

Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance