The internet stores a tremendous amount of information about us - from the things we buy, to the comments we make on Facebook or Twitter - but how much of this can we control? And what damage could it do to our reputations and job prospects in the future? See all internet tips and tricks.
The internet knows a lot about us. Every time we sign up for one of those exciting, free, online services, click a ‘Like' button, are tagged in a photo, or comment on our social media of choice, we leave behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs that can lead back to us, sometimes in ways we least expect. As a society we've long grown accustomed to the idea of a reputation, and how we maintain it in the physical world, but now with the copious amount of information about us online, most of which is freely available to an interested party, we need to seriously consider the state of our digital identity.
YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: THE INTERNET NEVER FORGETS
In the past any errors of judgement or fleeting, rebellious actions could be quietly put to rest and hopefully forgotten. If we were unlucky enough involved in industrial tribunals, news stories, or court cases then the repercussions could be further reaching, but they would still eventually abate. There was always a chance that someone might emerge to remind you of said indiscretions, but for the most part these moments faded into obscurity, and we could rebuild our reputations without the taint of history. Today, things are very different.
In the digital, always-connected age there is the real possibility that the things we share or experience will follow us relentlessly throughout our whole lives, with possible implications on the jobs or financial services open to us in years to come. Society has never been in a position before where our thoughts and beliefs are matters of public record, easily found and collated with the most basic search tools. ‘This will be the first generation of humans to have an indelible record' writes Google chairman Eric Schmidt in his book The New Digital Age. So we need to understand how to control the information about us that people are able to see. See all security advice.
YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: GOOGLE YOURSELF
If you are applying for a job, finance, or even going on a blind date, there is a very good chance that the interested party will run your name through a quick Google search. It's important then to know what they will find when the results appear. If you type your own name into the ubiquitous search engine then the important listings are the one that appear on the first page, and pretty much that page alone. In many cases all you will find are links to your social media pages, and maybe the odd photo or two. This is normal and fine, but we've heard stories where this wasn't the case, and the effects can be devastating.
Simon Wadsworth is an Online Reputation Management consultant for his company Igniyte (www.igniyte.com), which specialises in helping people fix their digital profiles. While Igniyte has many corporate clients, it still finds many individuals who come to it with problems of how the internet represents them to the world. Sometimes in quite shocking ways.
‘There was a lady whose mother had been brutally murdered, and it caught the national headlines' says Simon. ‘You know the way that you see basically a snippet in Google? You don't see the full story until you click on it. The snippet read, because of the way it folded up, that she was involved in the murder. At first glance - and you know what people are like, they're impatient, click through and don't necessarily see the full details - it looked like she was somehow associated with it.'
Sadly stories like this are becoming far more common than you'd think. Another case that Igniyte had to deal with involved a young woman working at a London stockbroking company, whose colleague brought sexual harassment charges against a manager.
‘She was subpoenaed to testify against the boss,' Simon explains. ‘She didn't bring the case, didn't do anything at all, but again when you looked at the front page of Google it looked like she was the one who had done it. All because of how the snippets came up when she was a witness in the case, [it] read like she was the main instigator. For a year after that she really struggled to get a job. She was classified as a trouble-maker, and it was nothing to do with her.'
In these cases of mistaken identity, or just an unfortunately written summary that accidently implies more than it meant to, there can often be a straight-forward way to deal with them.
‘We can go to the papers and explain the situation,' says Simons, ‘get them to make adjustments...and they will respond to that if there's a good reason. As long as you're sure there's a genuine distress caused by a mistake, and you're not aggressive, you're not threatening them, you're not legal with them, you're just talking to them and saying look this is the problem. Another way, which is dangerous in some ways, is to counter that story with their own story. But there's a danger you open up another debate then.'
Removing unfavourable links becomes a far more complicated problem if the details are actually true, even if they are related to events that might have happened several years earlier. The Guardian recently reported on several people who had found their past very difficult to escape. One young woman had converted to Islam and wanted to delete her former life from the web.
She had previously worked as a professional model and although the model agency agreed to remove her account and profile, they had already paid for the photographs the woman had posed for and now owned the images - therefore it would be possible for anyone to find them on a Google image search. Another story was of a man who had suffered financial difficulties in the 1990s which led to him having to sell his house to pay of his debts. Searching for his name on Google brought up the details of his money troubles even fifteen years after the event, without mention that he had actually settled the debt at the time. Because the story was factually correct the newspaper involved refused to remove it and Google took a similar stance.
Although you can hire a company like Igniyte to fight these cases for you, they are not a cheap solution by any means. Pursuing companies can also be a long, drawn-out affair, with the information remaining available all the while. To really take control of your online reputation the first and most important step of all is to take control of page one on Google. Which is not as far fetched as it first sounds. See also: How to delete browsing history in Chrome.
YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: PROTECT YOUR REPUTATION
With reportedly 94% of Google searches never reaching the second page of links, what appears on page one of your name is of the utmost importance. Thankfully there are ways of populating this list with positive content, essentially burying the past under a more reputable present. All it takes is a little work.
‘If you want something ranking on page one for your name,' Simon explains, ‘then the best place to start is probably LinkedIn. If you do a LinkedIn profile you've got to do it to the point where you've got an all star rating. If you do an all star rating with your name, as long as it isn't John Smith, then there's a very good chance you're gonna get that on page one of Google.'
This same principle applies to Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and any other largely populated sites that Google will recognize as significant online. The frequency of your visits and posts can also have an effect on where they appear in the rankings. In an ad hoc test we conducted at the PC Advisor offices we found that it was possible to move one link down the page quite quickly by logging into social media sites and making changes to a profile or posting comments. Some results began to appear almost instantly, although if the link you're attempting to move is a popular one then it can require more dedication to ensure that it doesn't start to climb back up to the top.
‘I would say to people that the best way to do it,' says Simon, ‘is that whatever industry they're in, whatever association they're involved with, whatever hobby they have, make sure that they take every opportunity they have to represent themselves. Because they may not have anything negative now, most people probably won't have any problem going forward, but when it does hit it can be quite devastating.'
The problem of managing a public identity is not a new one, after all Shakespeare highlighted the challenge in Othello when he wrote ‘reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.' The stakes now are higher though, thanks to the global nature of communication, and the ease of which information is accessed. The internet has brought its many splendours to the modern world, and we would never want to return to a time without it, but as we learn how to live in the truly digital age we will need to become the active curators of our own online lives. See also: How to browse the web anonymously and send messages securely.
YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: SOCIAL MEDIA TIPS
If you don't want something causing you embarrassment in the future, then it's a very good idea to be careful about how you represent yourself on social media. While this might seem like secure, private environment, the opposite is often the case. The number one rule to remember is that you should only post something that you would be happy for anybody to see, not just your close friends. Social media is still public, because friends in your stream can repost your comments, thus exposing them to the world. Deleting a regrettable remark is also no guarantee that it won't appear again, for the same reasons.
To limit how much search engines can see your content you need to keep a regular eye on each account's privacy settings. If you use Facebook then you should click in the Gear icon in the top right hand corner then select Privacy Settings. Under ‘Who can see my stuff? make sure that the setting is Friends (or Close Friends if you have created a list) rather than Public. In the left hand navigation pane you'll also see an option for Timeline & Tagging. Click on this then repeat the process for ‘Who can see things on my timeline?'.
Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn all have similar options, so visiting them and checking that they are also not set to public is a good way to ensure that the risque remark made after a few drinks and a bad day doesn't become something that follows you around. See also: Protect your identity on Facebook.
YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT: THE RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN
If all this seems a bit scary, and we certainly think it is, then you might feel the compulsion to remove yourself entirely from the internet. The things is, it takes a lot of work and in many cases information will still be left behind. Clearing mentions of yourself on news sites or blogs can only be done by contacting them directly and pleading your case. If they are not receptive, and the posts in question conform to the site's guidelines, then you'll find little help from Google either.
A recent campaign for the Right to be Forgotten, ended up in the European Court of Justice where advocate general Niilo Jaaskinen recommended that Google was not responsible for the censoring of available information as it was ‘not generally to be considered as a controller of the personal data appearing on web pages it processes.' This means that references to you that might have appeared in the past are going to remain there. Taking the route of creating positive content to drown out the negative still remains the most effective way of managing your online identity.
You can of course delete your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts, but anyone determined enough can probably trace your remnants. A good place to visit if you're serious about removing yourself from the web is AccountKiller.com who have detailed notes on an incredible range of sites, with links to their various deactivation and removal procedures.