It's not a trivial question. Google, as well as specialized search sites such as ZoomInfo, Ziggs, and LinkedIn, are increasingly being used for instant background checks. Apply for a job, hunt for venture capital, ask someone out on a date, or meet with a prospective business partner at a trade show, and chances are your reputation will be researched.
Exercising Soviet-style control over information that's already online is near impossible. ZoomInfo, which combs automatically through the Web to build a dossier of an individual's jobs, affiliations, and educational history, does allow people to correct the resulting profiles. But "if you remove something from your summary, and the information is still out there on the Web, we'll find it again," promises vice president Russell Glass. He adds helpfully that "your best bet is to go to the source and ask them to remove it."
Social-networking sites such as LinkedIn and Yahoo 360 allow users to build profiles from scratch, so it's easier to make positive impressions. Some people who create profiles ask current and former colleagues to write endorsements of their work — the Internet's equivalent of collecting "blurbs" for your book. But most searchers understand that information on these sites isn't at all objective.
Neither are the profiles on Ziggs. There, users can post their work histories and supply essential data, like their favorite ice cream flavor. For an additional $50 per year, Ziggs will ensure that when others try to find you on Google, MSN, Yahoo, or Ask Jeeves, they'll be directed to your Ziggs profile by way of a paid link atop the search results. "[Most] of the time, when someone searches for you, they want to know where you're working now, and they want your contact information," says Ziggs CEO Tim DeMello.
Sometimes, though, they're looking to dig deeper, and there it seems that Google is still the gold standard. Trying to alter what appears about you on the first page of Google search results is difficult, says Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research. But you can exercise some influence.
"You can't ask Google not to find something about you that's on the Web," she says, "but what you can do is make sure that you're putting stuff out there that it will find." That might mean making sure your corporate Web site includes a profile of you, maintaining a Web log, or writing articles for online publications in your field. Li also recommends using sites like Feedster or PubSub — the latter tracks more than 10 million blogs and 50,000 Internet news groups — to keep tabs on what's being written about you around the Web. What you find, of course, may not always be pretty. But better, anyway, to know it's out there.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.