Help! If employers Google me, they'll find a racy site

Here are 5 ways to polish your online image, and overcome cases of mistaken identity.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I've known for some time now that someone with the same name as mine is featured on a web site that is not exactly pornographic, but close. Friends tease me about this, but now that I'm job hunting, it's not so funny. Could this become a problem if (or when) employers Google me? Is there anything I can do to assure them there's no connection? -Not Laughing in the Northeast

Dear Not Laughing: Well, presumably if this other person's photo is shown on the site, employers will know it's not you as soon as they meet you - but what if things don't even progress that far? Employers have taken to digging up as much info online about prospective hires as they can find, which gives job seekers - and yes, your life was already complicated enough - one more thing to worry about.

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In this instance, "the best defense is a good offense," says Dave Opton, founder and CEO of ExecuNet, an online career-coaching and job-search network for executives earning $100,000 a year and up. "It's in your best interest to head off any confusion, so pre-empt the problem by telling interviewers up front that, if they Google you, this other party's name may come up, but it isn't you." He adds: "It's especially important if, as in the case of an almost-pornographic site, there's a chance the interviewer could be too embarrassed to ask."

Your problem is a simple case of mistaken identity, but an increasing number of other job hunters really do have some cleaning up to do.

For example, an informal gathering of friends plus a digital camera can equal trouble, notes Jack Vonder Heide, CEO of a research and consulting firm called Technology Briefing Centers in Oak Brook, Ill. "Let's say photos of last year's neighborhood block party turn up on a web site somewhere," he says, "and there is the job applicant, passed out on a lawn chair at three in the afternoon, beer bottle in hand." Yikes.

Indeed, recruiters have eliminated job candidates after an online search that revealed "failure to acknowledge publicly known information about an ethics investigation, weird personal habits, legal proceedings against a former employer," or the fact that a candidate has another business on the side that may monopolize time and energy, according to a report ExecuNet just published called "Dealing with Your Digital Dirt." In the last scenario, you don't have to give up your sideline, Opton says - just be prepared to defend your ability to do wonders at your full-time job despite it.

Of course, if your online search turns up information that is just plain inaccurate, you can ask the webmaster of the site in question to remove it. But "removal is at the webmaster's discretion," notes the ExecuNet report and "you might find the content an immovable beast."

That's why it's important to know how to manage your own online image so that, at the very least, the facts you want people to discover outweigh the ones you'd rather they didn't. ExecuNet offers these tips:

Don't limit your self-search to one search engine. Each one indexes the Internet differently. Instead, use a meta-search engine like Dogpile, which brings you the top combined results from Google (Charts), Microsoft's (Charts) MSN, Yahoo (Charts), and elsewhere.

Keep a running record of what turns up. You can set up a Google Alert (go to www.google.com/alerts) that will monitor the Web and let you know when any new reference to you appears online.

Start a blog. Technorati, an online service that tracks activity on almost 40 million blog sites, says the blogosphere is doubling every 6 months. Since each entry on a blog is "signed" by the author, and since search engines rank the most recent and frequent results first, your blog should show up at the top of search pages. Just make sure your blog covers topics you'd want employers to see.

Consider creating a simple web site, or "webfolio." Popular domain sellers like Network Solutions, GoDaddy, and Yahoo! Small Business have all-in-one website creation services that include a domain name and hosting capabilities, so you can have your own place on the Net - where you control the content - without having to be a techie yourself.

Get noticed for the right reasons. Whether volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or writing articles for trade publications, it's always good to be mentioned on websites where you'll shine.

Want more information? For an executive summary of The ExecuNet report, which, among other things, tells how to create a positive image for yourself in cyberspace, e-mail Dave Opton.

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