width=240In a recent post, Career Rocketeerdiscussed the importance of building a positive online footprint.

Your online footprint is the digital imprint of your life. It's the things you created deliberately, with readers in mind, like your LinkedIn profile or VisualCV. But it's also the comments you made two years ago on a political blog. It's the nasty review you once wrote on Amazon because you were feeling cranky. It's the letter to the editor from last year. It's the hobbyist website you own that has nothing to do with your profession. In short, it's everything you ever did online using either your real name, or a screen name that can be traced back to you (and if someone is trying hard enough and knows what they're doing, that's basically any screen name).

As Career Rocketeer points out, online research is increasingly common:

A recent poll of HR professionals and hiring managers showed that more than half will Google prospective candidates at some point during the hiring process. Furthermore, 46% of those, have said that they have eliminated candidates based on what they found!

What this means for job seekers?

If you're looking for a job, the people you need to worry about are recruiters and employers. But can it be too long before hundreds of companies spring up with the sole purpose of researching people online? When employers outsource the work to experts in that way, there will literally be nowhere to hide.

So now would be a good time to evaluate what you're doing online under a variety of screen names and determine whether you want to keep going. Feel passionately that your chosen political party are the good guys and the other side is evil incarnate? That's fine but does the world need to hear you say it online? Can the debate continue without your five cents? Because if so, you're probably better off to hold your fire.

Angry enough with someone else to write a long tirade against them on a public forum? Consider sending a private message or email instead. Want to review a book on Amazon? OK, but keep it non-controversial and make sure you spell and punctuate correctly!

But that's down the road - what about now?

Right now the people looking up your name in Google won't be delving into alternate screen names unless they have a lot of time on their hands. More likely they will Google your name and see what comes up.

That means you should do the same (and use Yahoo and MSN too - search engines all return different results). What do you find on the first 3 pages?

I don't like what I found. Now what?

Now comes the hard part. The web is pretty much forever. Even sites that disappear may be catalogued on The Wayback Machine and similar archives. But there are things you can do to minimize the impact of something you said or did online. Here are just a few suggestions, but these are by no means exhaustive. If you know of more, please add them in the comments.

1) See if you can change your screen name on the site. If you can, as the search engine refreshes its results, your chosen screen name will replace your real name. It will take a while depending on how often the site is reindexed by the search engines.

2) Write to the site owner and ask him/her to delete your comment. This is only effective for small sites and even then, many site owners will refuse to 'rewrite history' by removing your comment. But it's worth a try.

3) And by far the most effective - start replacing the results you don't like with ones that reflect more positively on you. Here are 3 things you can start working on now to replace negatives with positives:

Online Profiles

Complete online profiles on all the major social networking sites and use your real name. MySpaceLinkedInFacebookZoomInfoPlaxoVisual CV andNaymz are good places to start. If you use the same name and email address, the results from these sites will then show up on sites such as ppl.com, which aggregrate social media profiles and this will help push negative content down the results. You should also set up our own Google profile.

Soliciting testimonials

Linkedin and Naymz allow you to receive testimonials from others, which then appear on your profile. Make the most of this feature because it will help mitigate any negatives.

Comment or write on business blogs

Another way to push negatives down in the search results is to start making informed and useful comments on blogs about your industry or field. Some of these will make their way into search results. You can find blogs at Technorati.

If you like to write, submit guest posts to blogs in your field and be sure to use your real name. Blog posts rank very well in the search engines for a variety of reasons and this is a surefire way to position yourself as an expert in your field.

Deal with what you can't fix

In some cases, there will be a big fat negative just sitting out there online waiting to catch you out. You can't hide it, you can't bump it down, and you can't persuade anyone to remove it. If this applies to you, you need to make a plan to deal with it. Depending on how bad it is and how closely related to your work, you may even need to proactively address it in interviews.

One of my clients ran a website for a famous musician and, through no fault of his own, became the target of fan anger when the artist made a decision fans didn't like. As the face of the site, he was the one people discussed (i.e. trashed) online. For quite some time, these discussions were on page one of Google for his name. So he addressed it head on in interviews, explaining the situation and how he handled it. As far as we know, that strategy worked every time.

In Summary

In the early days of the web, most people felt that they could partition their online lives. They had one screen name for political blogs, one for discussing their favorite band, and one for professional activities. That is no longer possible. All of these identities will one day be attributable to you - so start now to build the kind of digital footprint you can be proud of when people research you online.

And to those who accuse me of encouraging people to be inauthentic, let me ask you this ... do you generally blurt out your political opinions when walking around meeting new people? Do you frequently get into shouting matches with other people in public? Do you share 25 Things That Drive Me Nuts with all your co-workers? If the answer is no, then think carefully before doing it online.