How to Clean Up Your Digital Dirt

According to a recent survey of executive recruiters, 75 percent use search engines to uncover information about candidates, and 26 percent have eliminated candidates because of information found online.

Unflattering personal information drifting around the Internet, known by some as “digital dirt,” can doom a job search before it even gets started. Job hunters should know that recruiters can, and often do, read much of what’s posted about them on the Web.

Christine Hirsch, president of Chicago Resources, a professional-services recruiting firm, says she regularly uses Google.com and other sites to check on candidates. In one instance, she found details about a candidate on a law-school Web site describing disciplinary actions related to a fraternity prank involving public intoxication. The candidate, who had received a verbal offer (and who had disclosed a drunk-driving conviction in college), didn’t get the job after the new information surfaced.

According to a 2005 survey of 102 executive recruiters by ExecuNet, an executive job-search and networking organization, 75 percent of recruiters use search engines to uncover information about candidates, and 26 percent of recruiters have eliminated candidates because of information found online.

Search engines aren’t going away, so here are some tips to help job seekers clean up their digital dirt.

Google yourself. First, find out what’s out there. Go to a popular search engine (Google.com, Yahoo.com or MSN.com will do) and type your name in quotation marks.

I recently Googled my name and found that the top two results were pages I’d rather recruiters not see. One was a link to a page from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. My name is there only because someone posted a response I made to reader mail about an article on real-estate commissions. All the same, I’d rather not be associated with the matter. The other link is to a gushing article I wrote about an online game I used to play. Nothing scandalous, but recruiters might not know I wrote it when I was 14.

If you find something you’d rather the world didn’t see, contact the site’s owner and ask that it be removed. If you get a “no,” contacting search engines isn’t likely to help. To date, I haven’t looked into getting my mentions removed.

Clean up your Facebook. Search engines might not find your risqué profile on social-networking sites like Facebook.com, but that doesn’t mean it’s hidden from recruiters. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for Facebook, says he’s heard that recruiters with alumni email addresses log in to look up job candidates who attended the same school.

A 21-year-old Virginia university student, a sociology major, recently cleaned up her Facebook profile — including removing a picture of her pole dancing in a cowgirl outfit at sorority social.

“At the time, I thought it was a great idea,” she says. “I mean, who has a picture of themselves swinging on a pole?”

She doesn’t want to take any chances now that she’s job hunting. “It’s just really unprofessional,” she says.

Mr. Hughes points out that Facebook members can change privacy settings so that only other students, or only confirmed friends, can view their information.

Bury your dirt.You may be able to cover up your digital dirt by crowding it out with positive information. Search engines typically rank their results based on the number of sites that link to those pages. The more links, the higher the search ranking. Make sure the pages you want recruiters to see have more links to them than the pages you’d rather keep hidden.

“The best way to make something [bad] go away is to have a lot of ‘online presence’ of your own,” says Luis Villa, senior technology analyst at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He suggests starting a Web page or a blog.

Tune in to your blog buzz. Just because you may be paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t talking trash about you online. You can monitor your Web presence through sites like Pubsub.com, which will alert you by email when your name is mentioned in Internet newsgroups, blogs and securities filings.

“It’s like putting a filter on a hose and catching information as it goes by,” says Salim Ismail, chief executive officer and co-founder of the site, which is based in New York.

Paul Kedrosky, a venture-capital investor in Vancouver who blogs about technology and finance, says he tracks his online reputation on Pubsub and similar sites such as Feedster.

“Getting regular reports on what people are saying about things related to me is really useful because a lot of times there are errors,” he says. “You want to make sure you set the record straight.”

Jared Flesher is a freelance writer living in Central New Jersey.

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