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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Internet

How to manage your online reputation for free

Your rep is everything -- especially online.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Just a few years ago, much of what we did was soon forgotten. But thanks largely to social media, now we do.

Misspelled Tweets, Facebook rants after you've had a bad day, and unflattering photos posted by your friends have made it difficult to manage your online reputation, especially when it's archived for posterity. And it's not just about keeping a lid on the past or your online mistakes -- it's also about making yourself look confident, capable, and Internet-savvy.

There are plenty of companies that will help you clean up, protect and build a professional online rep for a price, but you don't need that. Here's how to manage your online reputation all by yourself (for free).

1. Google yourself

All good online reputation management begins with a search. And when I say "Google" yourself, I don't mean just use Google -- use every possible search engine, including people searches, social networks and forum searches to find out everything (good and bad) being said about you on the Internet.

Search for your name, your nicknames, your maiden name, misspellings of your name -- heck, it's even a good idea to search for your first name coupled with a few keywords. (Keywords can include things like hometown, current city, the name of your college and your occupation.) If you're worried about what a specific person, such as a potential employer, might find, make sure you search for any identifiable info they might have access to, such as your email address, a frequently-used username, or a phone number.

You should also comb through any social media accounts, blogs or forums that you frequent to make sure there are no damning posts or photos that you forgot about, and check the Wayback Machine to see if any of your deleted accounts are still living in cached form on the Internet.

Bonus: Check the social media accounts, blogs, and forum posts of your friends, family members, and significant others, just to be sure you won't be blindsided by someone who doesn't take your online reputation quite as seriously.

2. Scrub your Internet presence and beef up your privacy settings

OK, you've scoured the Internet, and you've found a few links/photos/high school blog posts that you'd rather your future employer not see. First things first: try to get those links/photos/high school blog posts removed, or at least make them private.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

On Facebook, open up the Privacy menu and click See more settings. Next to Limit the audience for posts you've shared with friends of friends or Public?, click Limit Past Posts. This will make all your past posts friends-only, so you don't have to worry about going through them one-by-one and making them individually private. Click Limit Old Posts and then click Confirm (this action can't be undone, so there are several warnings) to make your past posts private.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

On Twitter, open up Settings and click Security and privacy. Under Privacy, there will be a Tweet privacy option -- check the box next to this to make your Tweets private and viewable only to your followers (people you must approve).

But remember - employers and online stalkers are pretty smart, so just protecting your social media accounts may not be enough. If there's a picture floating around that you really don't want anyone to see, it's best to remove it or ask the friend who uploaded it to take it down. You can untag yourself, but the photo will remain visible unless the original uploader removes it. You can ask Google to remove your personal information from its search results, but this doesn't apply to embarrassing photos or emotional train-wreck blog posts.

3. Consider changing your name

No, I don't mean legally changing it, or going into witness protection, or anything like that. But you might want to consider using a variation of your name for professional purposes, to help keep your personal Internet life from leaking into your professional Internet life.

If you have an extremely un-searchable-name, such as John Smith, you may want to use a variation of your name simply to distinguish yourself from the 1 million other more famous John Smiths trolling the Internet. In this type of situation, I suggest adding a middle name or initial to your professional name, so that future employers and colleagues will find you when they search Google -- not some imposter.

If you want to distance yourself from a not-so-great online reputation from your past, or if you simply want to keep your personal life private from your professional life, I suggest changing both the name on your personal accounts and the name on your professional accounts so there's no overlap. This doesn't have to be a pseudonym: I use my first and first-middle name on my personal accounts, and I use my first, third-middle (I have a lot of names), and last name on my professional accounts. This way, I know it's unlikely that someone looking for my professional accounts will stumble onto my personal accounts by accident (or on purpose).

4. Build your brand

The best online reputation management strategy is a proactive one. Instead of trying to suppress your past, focus on building your future. By adding new content in the form of new social network accounts, blog posts, articles and forum posts, you can boost your professional identity and tamp down your "drunk college days" identity at the same time. This works because search algorithms like to see new content -- in Google's eyes, an up-to-date blog is far more relevant than a years-old Facebook picture, and therefore gets prime real estate near the top of the search results.

Here are some ways to build a brand for yourself:

Start a blog or a personal website.This doesn't have to be a professional blog or website, it can simply be a personal blog with work-safe posts. If you want to write about Los Angeles salad places or restoring arcade cabinets, go for it -- just make sure you do so in a professional manner. Also, it's never a bad idea to purchase your domain name (first+lastname.com)

Spiff up your social networks.Create a separate Facebook account for your professional identity. Add your boss, coworkers and professional colleagues, and post (work-safe but interesting) content to this account frequently. If you're not a member of many social networks, consider joining some under your professional identity; LinkedIn is an obvious choice, but I also like review sites Yelp and Amazon; alumni sites such as Classmates.com; and blogging sites like Tumblr. After all, you want to come across as a well-rounded, totally work-safe person, right?

Be an expert.If you're an expert in your field, try to get your name placed in industry publications or magazines. The quickest way to the top is to ride someone else's coattails, and an industry pub is far more likely to have Google clout than little ol' you. Sites like Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and MediaDiplomat connect reporters with sources -- you could be that source. If you're not an expert in your field, try to position yourself as one through blog posts, forum posts, video blogs or on social media.

Then again, remember this: while you might think that a squeaky-clean, ultra-professional online presence is ideal, it's not. If your professional presence is too sterile, you'll raise flags -- it will be obvious you're cultivating it -- and you may prompt your online stalkers to just dig deeper. You want your branded content to reflect someone who's professional, but who also has a personality.

5. Stay vigilant

A solid online reputation is priceless, so make sure it doesn't all come tumbling down by taking protective steps.

Set up a Google Alert. Google Alerts let you track search terms (such as your name), and be notified immediately when a new search with that term pops up. The Google Alerts page even has a handy "Me on the web" widget, which lets you create alerts for your name and email address.

Have separate email addresses.If you decide to go the route of different names or personal and professional profiles, use two different email addresses. Many social networks let people search users by email address or find users in their contact list (by email address). In fact, if you can, use separate everything for personal and professional accounts: separate phone numbers, separate names, separate credit cards...

Be diplomatic.This is especially important if you're managing the online reputation of a business: words carry about 10x as much weight, and 5x less humor, especially when they're written down and posted on the Internet. Think before you post, especially if you're responding to someone, and try to err on the side of "overly diplomatic." Think about it this way: you're not going to get in trouble for not tweeting something controversial.