The embarrassing tweet. The drunken party photos. The DUI arrest. The messy divorce or business scandal.
When it comes to the Internet, there are no secrets. If people are searching for you, what they find isn't necessarily what you want them to see.
"Google is increasingly becoming your first impression … but it's getting increasingly harder to take control of that impression," said Patrick Ambron, co-founder of BrandYourself.com, part of the growing "online reputation management" industry.
Whether it's a new college graduate looking for a first job, a single jumping into the online dating world or a business owner stung by negative publicity, almost everyone has some online history they'd like to bury.
And that's the problem. On the Web, it's virtually impossible to erase anything entirely.
That has helped spur growth in the "reputation management" industry.
The key: Pushing the "good stuff" about you to the top of a Google search, while suppressing the negative.
•Populate yourself. It's like a positive PR campaign where you want to get yourself on as many online platforms and links as you can: A personal website, LinkedIn and other social media profiles, a YouTube video with your name in the headline. Post some articles, a lecture, a link to something about or by you in writing.
"The intent is to make those things in the eyes of the search engine more authoritative. Then Google will naturally rank those things higher," said Michael Zammuto, president of ReputationChanger.com, a Philadel-phia-based firm whose clients include Hollywood celebrities, Fortune 500 companies and foreign governments.
•Don't engage. For businesses, Zammuto said it's natural to want to wage war against negative posts, especially those on customer review sites such as Yelp.com.
Hard as it sounds, ignore them, said Zammuto.
"Stop going on there and defending it. If you get into a debate with an anonymous person with a chip on their shoulder, it's not worth it. It will make (the debate) rank higher in searches for your company's name."
•Do it yourself. While reputation management firms may charge fees from a few thousand to a few million a year for high-level corporate and government accounts, there also are sites that cater to everyday people.
BrandYourself.com offers free and paid services. It lets you create a free profile page, as well as submit up to three sources - say, your LinkedIn profile or a mention on your company's website. It reviews those, then gives tips to make them more appealing to Google search engines. For those wanting expanded help, it offers paid services for $80 a year and up.
Youthful escapades also can be problematic. Zammuto said he's working with a mid-30s business owner who posed for Playgirl magazine in his 20s. Now married, the business owner sought help in getting his "reclining nude" photos to drop lower in Google searches. He advises getting lots of new content posted that include headshot photos - ideally in a business suit. Eventually, those professional images will help push the more salacious ones deeper into Google's recesses.
•DIY tools: There are plenty of do-it-yourself tools for those who want to be sure their online reputation stays clean.
Scott Eggert, director of digital communications for Merlot Marketing in Sacramento, recommends setting up three: Google Alerts, which sends an email anytime your name (or any selected search topic) appears online; Newsle.com, which sends email alerts when your name (or anyone else's you choose) is published in news articles or online blog posts; and Mention.net, which covers the "nooks and crannies," such as social media mentions.
Distributed by MCT Information Services