What's the Big Deal? The Online Reputation Audit

The internet has provided us with a manner of researching somebody's professional and personal background that has been unparalleled throughout history. By sending emails, posting to blogs and online journals, and uploading pictures a person can provide interested parties with information on a variety of topics. Some of this is useful or even recommended -- an online resume or a personal website can enhance an individual's professional image and lead to jobs and new networking contacts. However, a person can unintentionally harm their reputation by posting or permitting another to post negative information on the internet that anyone can see. It is vital in the modern world for everyone to conduct an "online reputation audit" once a month or more frequently to see what is available about them on the internet. Oftentimes, the information is good. If it is embarrassing or hurtful, there are steps for a person to take to improve their online image.


Search for Yourself on the Internet

The first step to conducting an online reputation audit is to determine what information about you is publically available. The internet is a complex system, but suffice it to say that the internet is nothing more than a link of thousands of computer systems around the world that share information with each other. Although every person has personal information stored online much of it is not publically available. For example, when a person uses online banking with a password everything from account numbers to financial information is online, but only people with a password or administrators of the local home computer (the bank) can view it. The easiest way to find public information is to search for yourself. Use several different search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) to get a complete picture. Search for text, images, videos, and documents. Search your full name, nicknames, and "screen names." What comes up? What websites store the information?


Check Your Credit Reports

After determining public information, take a look at the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) to get a copy of your credit reports. Federal law requires free credit reports annually and sometimes more often. As far as your online reputation audit is concerned, look for who has been requesting credit information about you. It is policy at many companies to routinely search for your credit information when you apply for a loan, start utilities service at your home, begin a new job, join the military, sign up for a credit card, etc. However, some unscrupulous people can get harmful information about you from these credit reports. Do any of the requests seem unusual? What companies or individuals requested the information? Does the credit report note what information was provided? Note any unusual occurrences and report these instances to the credit agency that provided the report. Add the unusual request to your audit.


Social Networking Sites and Privacy

Social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, Linked In, and Friendster can be a fun way to keep up with your friends and a useful tool for professional networking. However, the ease at which these sites distribute information can be problematic. If you have an account, make sure you constantly note what others are posting about you and be aware of what you are posting about yourself. Avoid information regarding your social life if it includes excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, sexual promiscuity, or other harmful materials. A good rule of thumb is if your parents would approve of your profile, then so would anyone else looking at it. One misconception people who use social networking sites have is that they are protected if they use privacy settings to limit who can view their information. This is incorrect. Savvy researchers can locate your profile using false login information, paying people within your network to research you for them. Beware!


Blogging, Posting, and Sharing Your Opinion

If you keep a blog or post on an opinion-sharing website people may be able to learn a great deal about you from what you post. A good rule is to not keep a blog if you are seeking employment or are employed in an industry that is very self-conscious of its employees' activities, such as medicine, business, law, finance and banking, and state-regulated professions. If you must, then follow these simple tips: First, use good grammar. Do not post anything that you would not turn in for a school assignment. Second, post intelligently. Your thoughts on current events are good, but how much you drank last night or what you really think of Paris Hilton is not. Third, if you have nothing nice to say, either don't say it or make sure it has a socially-redeeming quality if you do say it. Blogs and posts to messages boards stay around forever. The author, on a recent search of himself, found a post he made to a M*A*S*H* message board 13 years ago.


Information, Communications, and Being Smart

It is commonly said that once information is posted to the internet it never goes away. This is not entirely true, but the nature of electronic information is more like a virus than a paper publication. It can be easily duplicated and transmitted to countless individuals. Information can be eliminated, but the time and expense of doing so makes it smarter to not provide harmful materials to begin with. Look at the list you created of potentially harmful information. Some you can eliminate yourself. Delete information, photos, and videos from social networking sites, contact credit agencies regarding problematic credit requests, and send emails or telephone websites where you found problems. You will hopefully be pleasantly surprised about how easy it is to either eliminate or greatly diminish information you don't want others to see. A note about email -- email's characteristics make it hard to track and eliminate. Keep emails acceptable from the start.


Internet Privacy Auditing is a Continuing Process

Hopefully you will get an idea of what is available about you from your online reputation audit and get a good start in eliminating the information you don't want others to see. If the information cannot be eliminated, don't worry. The internet grows exponentially every year. Information gets harder to locate as time goes on. If problem information can't be removed, then keep current and future information positive. Eventually as time passes the bad will become irrelevant or inconsequential. Conduct future online reputation audits frequently. New information is always posted. Social networking sites allow others to post information, pictures, and video of yourself without your consent. Keeping aware of what is available will allow you to protect your online reputation and direct what is available in a desirable way. Do you want to accentuate you education? Your charity work? Your career? The internet is a useful tool to do so, and you are in the driver's seat!