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Cleaning up your digital dirt

Image: Mop Power
If you're in the market for a job, make sure your online reputation is clean.Fox Photos / Getty Images file

What happens on the Internet tends to stay on the Internet.

Merry Miller, an entertainment reporter, found that out the hard way. She did an interview last year with Holly Hunter on an ABC news show, and she made so many fumbles and gaffes that it ended up on YouTube titled “TV Disaster.” To date, this video has received more than 1.5 million views and nearly 2,000 comments ridiculing the interview.

There’s nothing worse than having unflattering information about you posted on the Web. It’s even happened to me, folks.

Unfortunately, you can’t just sit back and hope it goes away. With hiring managers today checking out prospective employees on the Web, job seekers need to manage their online reputations — or their resumes could end up in the do-not-call pile.

Kirsten Dixson, author of “Career Distinction: Stand Out By Building Your Brand,” calls this type of negative stuff “digital dirt.”

Recruiters are Googling you, she says, and “digital dirt” can quickly take you out of the running.

“We’ve had clients who had digital dirt about them on major news sites, but you can’t just ask to take it down. You have to find ways to sweep the dirt under the rug,” she maintains.

The first thing you need to do is Google yourself right now. Even set up a Google alert with your name so you can track all the new dirt when it first hits.

I’m not talking about defamatory information that may require legal action against the perpetrator. I'm talking about the things that may have a grain of truth in them — like how silly you looked during a television interview, or a blogger’s negative opinion about a research paper you wrote, or a MySpace confession you made when you were 17.

Burying those Internet skeletons
Many of us may want to find ways to erase the negative information about us on the Web, but that may not be the best strategy.

"What to do when you don't like the impression given by your online persona?" asks C. David Gammel, a corporate technology consultant. "The counterintuitive response is the best: Post even more content about yourself online."

However, he adds: "The content should be of a nature that is at least neutral, at best positive, for your career prospects. Blog about your professional interests. Discuss research you have conducted yourself on a topic of interest.”

Gammel believes in burying the Internet skeletons in positive cyber dust. “Once the less savory items are pushed off your first page of ego search results on Google, you'll be fine with most people,” he notes. “That's why you have to post more, not less, to get rid of the impact of those skeletons."

If you have a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or LinkedIn, that content eventually goes to the top of Google searches when someone types in your name.

As for burying the negative information, you can politely ask a site owner to remove an item about you, and sometimes that’s works. But don’t engage in tit for tat, says Lyn Mettler, who owns Step Ahead Web Strategies, which helps businesses manage their online reputations.

“It ends up looking defensive and can get ugly very quickly,” Mettler says. “If there is misinformation and you can calmly clarify that in a post, response, comment, etc., do so, so the reader will see both sides.”

She also suggests that you enlist the help of friends. “Third-party endorsements are much more credible than someone talking about themselves,” she says.

Another tactic is to do a traditional public relations blitz, even embracing the dirt. That’s what Merry Miller did, and she ended up on “The View” talking about her notorious Hunter interview.

“Based on my personal experience, the best thing to do is address it immediately, tell the truth, don't blame anyone and try not to take it personally because most vicious bloggers move to their next target really quickly,” she says.

“Life isn't easy, but you don't have to go down with the bad stuff.”

Bringing in the experts
You can also hire a firm that specializes in vacuuming up the digital dirt.

ReputationDefender is an online reputation management company. CEO Michael Fertik says about half of the negative information they find about their customers is self-inflicted, and half is inflicted by someone else. “Maybe someone wrote something about their eating disorder years ago and now it’s among the top 10 results about them on Google,” he says. “Or there’s someone calling you a thief or a jerk, or a bad girlfriend or boyfriend.”

ReputationDefender charges between $100 to $500 for its services, which include publishing so much accurate and positive information about an individual that the bad stuff gets pushed off the first page on Google.

The company also offers a service that provides manual removal of dirt, including asking site owners and bloggers politely to take down information.

None of this stuff is guaranteed, however, because too often the people that run these sites refuse to remove any data.

Indeed, even ReputationDefender has trouble defending even its reputation on the Web.

When the firm first started, it tried to help out one of its clients by asking a blogger to remove dirt about the individual. But the strategy backfired and the blogger ended up blogging yet again about the client’s dirt — and also slamming ReputationDefender.

In a recent Google search on “ReputationDefender,” the negative post appeared as the third result. This proves how difficult it is, even for experts, to keep a cyber reputation untarnished.

Getting out your cyber mop
As I mentioned before, I have also been slammed on the Internet.

I came across a blog post written by Mark Story, a communications expert and adjunct faculty at the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, that blasted a story I had  written for about social networking overload.

Story called my reporting “sloppy,” which is probably the worse slam you can make against a journalist.

I decided to write a response on his blog. I'm a blogger at and’s YourBiz, after all, and I should be able to take what I sometimes dish out.

I politely disagreed with him on his blog post, and to my surprise, he e-mailed me an apology.

He also blogged about our interchange, saying, “In a moment that was likely based on blogger hubris and too much caffeine, a few weeks ago, I blogged about an MSNBC piece on social media overload and called it ‘sloppy journalism.’ ”

I know, not all these stories will have similar happy endings. But if there’s a chance you can control some of the digital dirt out there, why not take out a cyber mop?