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Google never forgets, but you can influence which search results about you are most visible

Have you ever tried searching your own name on Google? If not, you should. If you haven’t in a while, you should do it again, soon. You may be surprised to find out what comes up.

Why bother? Isn’t the Internet just a time-waster for people who don’t have lives? Not anymore. Like it or not, search engines like Google matter. In today’s society, they provide your first impression.

Every time you meet a new client, schedule an interview or try to enrol your kid in a new school, the person making the decision has probably punched your name into Google even before you’ve had your first conversation. If they haven’t called or emailed you back, your Google search results might explain why.

It had been a few years since I had searched my own name on Google. I was a busy guy, running a PR agency, writing a book and sitting on several boards. Then someone asked me: “Have you Googled yourself lately?” I couldn’t resist. A few seconds later, I was surprised to see what had come up on the first page: two articles written a few years back criticizing my position on climate change (I believe the science).

If either of these climate change deniers had written a letter to the editor in a local newspaper 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as fussed. After all, tomorrow’s fish wrap, right?

Negative media is much worse today than it was decades ago. Back then, bad press would last a day or two, maybe more depending on how controversial the subject was—or if it was poorly handled. Today, bad press is proliferated online, not just on websites hosted by traditional print and broadcast media but also across dozens of social media channels, on blogs and in videos. It’s all permanent record now, thanks to the Internet.

Google has forever changed the reputation management business, as a result. The longstanding PR principle that “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and it will be bad” is now propagated by the Internet. Even if you’re not interested in what goes on in the online world, the online world is interested in you.

You can’t control what someone says about you online, but you can take steps to reduce its visibility through Search Engine Reputation Management (SERM). SERM uses the tools and knowledge developed for the field of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The goal of SEO is to rank high in search results for keywords and phrases most valuable to you or your business. For example, if you are a Vancouver-based law firm specializing in criminal law, you may want your website to be the first search result when someone types in the words “criminal lawyer” and “Vancouver.”

SERM works in the same way as SEO, but the goal is often the reverse. Instead of wanting to rank high in search for specific keywords and phrases, SERM helps to move down the outdated headlines that may not be relevant in an Internet search. They’re replaced with news, posts and other online content that better reflects your current reputation. In my case, using SERM tactics, the two negative articles that came up in Google searches for the phrase “Jim Hoggan” were pushed down, while more timely articles moved higher, and I believe rightly so.

People who ignore the power of the Internet do so at their peril. This is equally true for a business person who turns a blind eye to what’s being said about them online as it is for a young person posting compromising pictures on social media: neither seems to fully realize the impression they’re leaving for the next person typing their name into Google.

To manage your reputation online, you need to ensure those searchers see what you want them to see. Thanks to changing technology, you have some power to help make that happen.

Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes they attract the public’s attention. After you work hard to rebuild your reputation in the real world, you want to be sure that you’re also being fairly represented in the digital one, too.

James Hoggan is a public relations consultant. His latest book, I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up, is being published in May. Follow James Hoggan on Twitter