Getting ahead still requires a firm handshake and sparkling personality, but your online persona is just as important these days. Most recruiters use search engines like Google, Yahoo, or MSN to learn more about would-be candidates for the jobs they're filling. Yet many professionals remain digital dabblers who can call up a corporate bio or other tidbits about themselves but who haven't cultivated a cohesive online identity.
The result can be a disjointed online presence. One challenge is making sure that when someone types your name into a search engine, the best info about you rises to the top instead of getting buried below lots of irrelevant stuff. Another common problem: Other people with similar names might elbow you off the first page of search results. Or even worse, the top results of a Google search include way-too-candid party photos, court documents relating to your divorce, or other embarrassing material you wish you could retract.
A little bit of technical know-how can dramatically sharpen your online persona—and maybe even help sweep those undesirable postings under the rug. To craft your digital image, start long before you're in the midst of a serious job hunt, since it takes time. The first step is making sure people can find basic, consistent information about your work and career. Once that's in place, you can take more sophisticated steps to enhance your professional reputation—or do damage control, if you must. Here's how:
Google yourself. One third of executives have never done a search of their own name, according to Execunet, a job-hunting website for senior professionals. Since others are checking you out, wouldn't you like to know what they're finding? Even if there's nothing embarrassing, there might still be a doppelganger whom people might mistake for you, or other material that clutters the career-enhancing results you want people to see.
Choose the right professional name. If your name is especially common or associated with a better-known person (say your parents christened you John Kennedy), try Googling different versions of it to see which yields the least cluttered search results. You might add a middle name or initial, hyphenate, or switch from a full name to a nickname. Then use that exact version for your résumé, business cards, and any professional work you do—you'll stand out more prominently on a Google search as John Q. Kennedy.
Use credentials consistently. Somebody plugging your name into a search engine might include other words, such as professional credentials (say, CPA if you're an accountant), a job title, or your company name. So be sure to include these details about yourself on your résumé, bio, business card, and so on, and do so consistently.
Create public profiles. Use networking websites like LinkedIn and Facebook, which allow you to list your education, professional history, skills, achievements, interests, and links to other websites that you choose. These sites are a good way to promote your professional chops in popular places where customers and colleagues are likely to see them. If you're job hunting, schmoozing on a networking site is also less likely to draw the boss's ire or attention than posting a résumé on HotJobs or Monster, which are solely dedicated to hiring.
Some alternative networking sites, such as ZoomInfo and Naymz, have less of a social component but make it easy for professionals to aggregate information that's already online elsewhere, such as a corporate bio, personal website, or published works. While you're exploring all the possibilities, make sure any bios that exist online—whether on your company's website or someplace else—are up to date and consistent with each other.
Build a website. Not everybody needs one, but if you're a frequent public speaker, you do a lot of writing in your field, or you otherwise create work-related projects, a website might be the best place to showcase your work. Companies like Google and GoDaddy make it relatively easy to build one, even if you don't know java coding from a cup of coffee.
You can also pay someone to geekify your website. A college student or tinkering neighbor might have the skills, and just a couple hours of work might make your site look and feel more professional. Plus, technical tricks like page titles, headings, and verbal tags can heavily influence search-engine results and help hide material you don't want people to see: Driving your website higher up in the results can push less flattering information down below the first page or two that most people look at.
Create links. To help people find all the info you want them to find, use hyperlinks to guide users from your corporate bio to your LinkedIn profile to your blog, and vice versa—creating your own self-referring network. Also ask friends and colleagues, where appropriate, to create links to your stuff from their own Web pages and other online features. The more traffic your own material gets, and the more external links there are to it, the higher it will show up in search engines.
Become an expert. Start your own blog or contribute to others. Be insightful and thought provoking (without burning bridges), and search engines will start turning up results that reflect your expertise. Ask others to hyperlink to your blog—and reciprocate.
If blogging is too time-consuming, comment on other blogs, bulletin boards, and social news sites like digg.com. Use your real name, be smart, and keep within the bounds of good taste. Wherever possible, include links back to your website or something else of yours.
Push the bad stuff out of sight. That photo of you setting the grill on fire last July 4 might be a family gem, but you don't need colleagues coming across it on your Aunt Nancy's blog. Ask friends and family to hide personal information behind good privacy settings, or to delete it altogether. It might be funny to family, but your boss—or future boss—doesn't need to be in on the joke.