Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach, a nineteenth century Austrian novelist, once said, “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.” Had Marie lived in the age of “Googling,” she would probably agree that such vanity extends to the Web. With more than 1 billion people online, just about anyone has the ability to form an opinion about you, whether you like it or not.

Up until last week, I considered this topic completely exhausted by the press as it relayed horror stories about Myspace pages and search-savvy human resource departments. Then a former client, who spends a good deal of time making sure his products look their best online, frantically called me for advice. A slew of negative content had bubbled to the top of Google, replacing what used to be a positive presence for his own name.

I reminded my former client that the same rules apply and provided him with this advice for consciously forming an online presence.

Step 1: Buy a domain name. If you haven’t already, buy the domain names that most resemble your name. While you might only use one or two, it is a good idea to lock up the rest to prevent others from edging you out online. If you think this is far-fetched, I once worked for a man who shares his name someone known online as “the drunk moron.” Let’s just say that this became a daily optimization battle.

Step 2: Pick a platform. URL in hand, it’s time to put up a basic Web site. This is the beauty of search: the simpler the effort, the more likely it is to rise up in the rankings. For fast action, even an off the shelf template site from your registrar can do quite well for name search. Any blog platform will also do. I personally found that Google Pages beat all other Sara Holoubek content, hands down. Google magic aside, it helps that the URL is tied to one’s e-mail address, which in my case, is my full name. As a result, all of the page titles automatically include my name.

Step 3: It’s all about content. Once you have chosen your platform, it’s time to drop in content. This is where conscious choices come into play. How you want to be perceived is completely up to you. While I tend to go for the basic business bio and associated topics, I can fully support those who use their online presence to highlight other activities, such as moonlighting in a band. There are no rules here. Just make sure you can live with this content when it comes up in an interview or a date.

Step 4: A picture says a thousand words. Good pictures help. Using your actual name in the file name will help basic visibility, as well as image search. Yes, image search. I personally freaked out when I realized a) how much traffic comes to my site from image search and b) that I need to stop smiling for cameras held up at industry conferences. Indeed, any picture taken today is likely to land online, so you might as well start putting up a few good pictures of your own.

Step 5: Add tracking code to your site. This is much easier than it might sound. There are many free metrics packages available, Google Analytics being one of the most widely touted. If you enjoy metrics in your day job, you will most likely get a kick out understanding who is trying to paint a better picture of you. I have to smile when I see that a former employer visits my site quite frequently, as does the interactive community in Bratislava. Some sleuthing on the latter detailed a clear path to the Slovak Internet player Martin Kovac.

Step 6: Put that URL out there. Free mileage is quickly earned on social networking sites such as LinkedIn. As a heavy beta tester, I frequently find that my profile from one social network site or another will pop up in results. This is why I try to be as consistent as possible by using an abbreviated version of my Web site content, as well as a link the Web site itself. Then again, you also have the option to assume a separate identity to ensure that your online social networking is not associated with your real name. Once again, this is simply a conscious choice you can live with.

Step 7: Wait patiently. This is perhaps the hardest part of personal search engine optimization. While you could spend your days frantically searching for newly indexed content, setting up a comprehensive Google alert for your name should avoid a fate best described by George Sands: “Vanity is the quicksand of reason.”

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