Remember when the internet didn’t exist and you could live out your adult life with relatively few reminders of embarrassing teenage romances? (Or at least so I’ve heard.)
Aside from your sister’s occasional good-natured teasing and maybe a lone love note tucked away in a box in the back of your parent’s basement, decisions made at 14 or 15 could be, by and large, forgotten.
But then homes across the U.S. began plugging into the World Wide Web.
And everything changed.
I had either the good fortune or terrible luck of entering high school at precisely the same time as people began pouring into AOL chat, flirting with online dating, and creating their own websites on Geocities.
Combine the three and you can make a pretty good guess as to what happened:
I acquired an online “boyfriend” who thought it would be sweet if he commemorated our relationship in the form of a dedication on his very own website. My full name, a photo of me…it all ended up on there between hideous blinking GIFs and marquee text.
A website shrine didn’t seem so harmful in 1996. That was before we knew anything about the permanence of online content and the power of Google. (Or, for that matter, the fleeting nature of long-distance teenage infatuation.)
But fast forward ten to twenty years as I applied for jobs and then launched my own company? That website became A LOT less cool.
Naturally, I set out to find a way to get rid of it.
Of course, it didn’t take long to learn that “getting rid of” damaging or even annoying content is nearly impossible. Once search engines find stuff, they don’t willingly let go — unless the material in question is gravely offensive or outright illegal.
And if you’re not the webpage owner, you can’t get far in persuading a hosting company take it down. (Unless, again, it somehow violates their terms & conditions.)
So instead I had to learn how to bury it well beyond the third page of Google’s search engine results.
The good news? I was able to accomplish it without much of a headache. And the better news is that you can, too.
Below are the 4 most effective ways I found to push down less-than-flattering search results. Do them, share them, and reclaim your name:
1. Give social media some lovin’
Google loves to give its first page results to profiles on trusted social sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Quora, and others. Use this to your advantage by signing up for an account on as many of the major networks as you can. The only caveat? You need to be minimally active on them, or they may fade from view.
Tip: When writing your profile descriptions, boost your search engine visibility by speaking about yourself in the third person and using your full name at least once.
2. Publish, publish, publish
You may not be able to prevent people from sharing personal, embarrassing, or critical content about you online, but don’t forget that you have publishing freedoms, too. If you haven’t already, buy a domain featuring your name and begin blogging frequently and consistently on topics pertaining to your expertise. (Alternatively, if you have a business name that is different than your own, you should include your full name with each blog post.)
Tip: If blogging isn’t enough or the negative content is video-related, it may be helpful begin a vlog (video blog), online “TV show,” or video tutorial series and upload them to video sharing sites like YouTube or Vimeo.
3. Be a guest (blogger)
The more you can get your name attached to other areas of the internet (as long as they’re trusted websites), the more likely it is you will control the first and second pages of Google’s search results. Pick several reputable sites where you think you have something valuable to offer and pitch a post. Websites like Entrepreneur.com are excellent for increasing not only your visibility, but your credibility as well.
Tip: Press coverage can give you a big boost, too, so when you’re sending out pitches don’t forget to reach out to your local newspapers that publish stories online. Even if all they’ll agree to is a press release, you’ll be ahead of the game!
4. Comment publicly
Leaving comments on other websites is not as effective as the other strategies discussed above, but it’s more helpful than you may think. (I have several comments on popular websites that appear on the second page of my own Google search results.) To take advantage of this, use your full name whenever you comment and focus on contributing thoughtful remarks on the websites that complement your business.
Tip: You never know when a comment you left somewhere is going to pop up on Google, so never say anything that could cast doubt on your credibility or professionalism. Watch your tone and your typos at all times.
Unfortunately, burying content you don’t like takes consistent effort — and there are no overnight fixes. Stick with it, though. With a smart strategy in place, you may be surprised at how successful you can be in making your embarrassing past a “virtual” afterthought.
Have you ever experienced unhelpful or even destructive content floating around out there on the web? How did you deal with it?
Erika Madden is the irresistible super geek behind Olyvia, a digital marketing, reputation, and image consulting company that helps women be delightful online. Between herding three feisty young children, running to the store for more Starbucks K-cups, and obsessively tweaking her website, she considers her success to be just short of miraculous.