When was the last time you googled yourself? It’s not just about vanity: Potential employers, dates, and even friends may search for your name from time to time—and what they see can really affect their first impression of you.
Unfortunately, despite what some people think, you can’t really control what the search engine says.
“Google is just reflecting the web,” says Vanessa Fox, a search engine optimization (SEO) expert and author of Marketing in the Age of Google. Fox should know—she used to work at the tech behemoth, and even helped launch some of the tools we’ll be talking about later. “If you want to get something taken off of Google,” she says, “you’re really thinking about removing it from the web entirely.”
However, that doesn’t mean you’re completely at the mercy of the search giant. Here are a few steps you can take to curate your image on Google.
Request a takedown from Google
While you can’t ask Google to take down a site you don’t like, you can request the removal of pages that threaten your privacy.
“If the information is what Google considers ‘personal information,’ like a social security number, Google has a specific form that you can fill out where they will remove it from their search results,” Fox says. Personal information can also include your bank account number, a handwritten signature, or a sexually explicit photo that someone has shared without your consent.
You can read more about Google’s removal policies here.
Start at the source and contact the owner
If the page that’s bothering you doesn’t contain private information, your best bet is to go to the owner or webmaster hosting the content you want to remove from your search results. For example, if someone posted an embarrassing YouTube video of you, you’ll need to contact that person and convince them to take it down. If it’s a Tumblr update that casts you in a negative light, plead with the writer to alter the post or delete it entirely. Some people will be more receptive than others, though—if you want to take down an actual news story about you or your business, you’re unlikely to make much traction.
In some cases, you may even be the owner of a search result you dislike. Perhaps you accidentally posted some less-than-glamorous photos to Facebook or wrote an angry blog post you now regret. You have the power to take those down or make them private.
“All of the social media companies have privacy settings, and Google respects those,” says Fox. “So Google can’t actually see anything on a social media site that requires a login to view, and they certainly can’t see anything is set to private for your friends.” So make sure you delete or alter the privacy of any posts you’d rather hide from Google.
If you are able to remove the objectionable content at the source, you need to tell Google about it. “Sometimes Google’s index takes a while to get updated,” says Fox. “So if you get something removed, you can fill out this request form from Google and they’ll remove it within 24 hours.”
Be wary of reputation management companies
For most people, working alone will be enough. However, businesses and public figures, people who are far more invested in their public reputation, have additional options: For fees of $1,000 and up, plenty of “reputation management” companies will alter your Google results by performing these tasks on a larger scale. But before you ask for help, you need to be careful.
“Reputation management companies are really the wild wild west,” says Fox. “There are a lot of really deceptive companies out there, so anyone who’s looking for reputation management services needs to be really cautious about it.” So if you really need to scrub things from your online past, make sure you do your research first. “There are some reputable services,” says Fox, “but there are also some who really prey on people.”
Create more positive pages to push the bad results down in the rankings
If you can’t convince content owners to take down negative pages with your name on them, you have one other avenue, Fox says: “Add a bunch of other information to the web. If you don’t have that much about you online, and someone searches your name, Google doesn’t really have much to show except for that one weird YouTube video.”
So fill up those search results with positive hits. Establish a LinkedIn profile, if you don’t already have one. Make sure your social media accounts use your actual name, not just an anonymous username. Create a personal landing page by using a service like about.me or starting a blog. It’s an especially good idea to buy a personalized domain like JohnSmith.com, if you can afford the fee.
If you have a common name, chances are that some of those negative results are referencing other people. In those cases, you’ll just have to try to distinguish yourself. “If you have a LinkedIn profile, try to add positive information like the city you live in,” says Fox. “Often when people do a search, and they find a bunch of different people, they do refine the search in some specific way to zero in on the person they’re looking for.”
In fact, googling yourself with specific keywords—city, occupation, or other identifying characteristics—is a good idea: This may bring up other search results that you’ll also want to deal with.
Ultimately, your new content can be about literally anything. As long as it has your real name on it, Google will likely push it up in the rankings. You could even contribute to a friend’s blog or podcast—the more sites on which your name appears, the more disagreeable sites you can banish to the second page of search results.