New Year’s Resolution: Clean Up Your Google Search Results

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Embarrassed by your Google search results? Old blogs and newspaper archives can be haunting, but cleaning up your search engine reputation is thorny. Google will only remove a search result from its queue if you can prove that the web page can be used for identity or credit card theft.

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Called online reputation management, there are entire businesses dedicated to helping companies detect and downplay unflattering search engine result pages (SERPs) by gaming the sophisticated algorithms used by major search engines. To stifle unfavorable reviews or articles, companies hire SEO vendors to knock undesired SERPs from their top few results, usually by tagging company-sponsored content and clogging search engines with choice results.

Sadly, there are no easy ways for private individuals to do the same. If you’re unable to prove that a search result is a threat to your personal security, removing search terms altogether is nearly impossible, but there are a few tricks (similar to those used by SEO vendors) that can help you manipulate search results in your favor. In 2005, Wall Street Journal technology editor Julia Angwin attempted to clean up her digital identity and hit similar snags as everyone else: Without a pressing legal issue, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate results. Instead, Google search expert Adam Lasnik told her to take matters into her own hands. “People should take control of their own presence,” he said, noting that creating your own top results is most effective with social media profiles or personal blog pages.

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Though it’s easy for established journalist types to add bulk to their Google queues, it’s a different battle for someone whose thoughts are not broadcast online on a daily basis. For those without media pillows, try the following:

– Sign up for accounts with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, all of which usually rank high in SERPs, making it easier to push down undesired content.

– Ask for removal. If an old blog post, photo or small article includes information about you that you’d like to hide, it’s always worth a shot to contact that owner of that site and ask for its removal. Granted, success rates can be low, but if you appear on a smaller site, some owners may oblige your request. But ask nicely.

– Create a web page or personal blog. Even a Tumblr page can rank high in search results if your name is used. Try using it as a professional branding tool, updating content with interesting articles or issues relating to your interests or line of work, eliminating the need to add more personal information to the web.

– Consider using another name. If your search results are too damaging, consider a change of your professional name. Change your social media and personal blog accounts to this name, and add it to your resume. This can be really handy during job searches. For example, if I wanted to eliminate SERPs found under “Allie Townsend,” I could opt for using A.K. Townsend as my professional alias or even “Alexandra Townsend,” my full name. This would route potential employers to a different set of search results, hiding my shaming digital past.