How to Build your Digital Brand

I wrote this article a while ago; it was recently published by Cornell Business.

In this digital day and age, the first thing a recruiter does is to Google you. Did you ever try that? You would be surprised with what comes up. Can you control the search results? You bet. Should you care? Only if you want to move ahead in life. Your digital brand is being built as you read these lines, through your and your friends’ contributions to the online elephant that never forgets. Rather than sitting back and watching it building itself, you can take a proactive role in shaping it, to ensure it plays to your advantage when you need it.

If your name is unique like mine, people will find you immediately. If you are John Smith, it won’t be as straightforward. People who search you will add search terms, like a middle name, the school you graduated from, the city you live in, and so on. Try these searches yourself and check the results.

You can control your digital brand by creating as much content as possible. Build a complete profile in multiple social networks, write a blog, comments on other people’s blogs, participate in online discussion forums, upload your pictures, share your videos, and more. Only by being proactive and actually generating information can you ensure that this digital elephant remembers what you want it to, and is not biased towards things you’d rather forget. This is true until you become famous, by which time other people will generate way more content that you ever could.

Social Networks
Let’s start with the obvious – you must have a LinkedIn page. Xing, Plaxo and others also compete in this field, but right now at least in the US, LinkedIn is king. If you don’t have one already, create a full LinkedIn profile, and start linking to friends. I suggest connecting only to people you know, and not just asking random people to join your network. If you do the latter, you’ll regret it the next time a friend asks you to refer them to one of your contacts, whom, as it turn out, you don’t know at all.

Facebook is more casual, but very influential. It has somewhat of a strange blend of friends, family, and business contacts, so content control is very important. You are the only person who can (and should) control it. If you don’t want your boss to see that old picture of you throwing up in that frat party, don’t let your boss into your network, or better, don’t let your whacky frat brothers in, only the trustworthy ones.

If you have many friends on other networks, make sure you’re there too. Being popular is good, so focus your efforts on social networks where you are more likely to be popular. Some leading social networks include MySpace, Bebo, and Hi5. Some are popular in other countries, and I definitely recommend joining them if you have ties over in these countries. Orkut, for example, is very popular in Brazil and India.

Writing a blog is a great way to get noticed. Blogs are favored by search engines, and allow you to express yourself. Free blog engines like WordPress and Blogger let you create a blog quickly and easily, so you’re only minutes away from starting one. If you’re not used to writing, just start doing it and learn on the job; the more you write, the easier it will get.

If you find it hard to write blog entries, try micro blogging – Twitter and Jaiku, among others, let you blog in sentence-long chunks. Podcasting and video blogging (also known as vlogging) are also good options. The latter has the advantage of leveraging YouTube and other video aggregation sites to spread the word and make you more visible to search engines. and Flickr are also good places to show the world who you are, by sharing your web links and your photos.

Optimizing for better search results
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a burgeoning industry, having to do with bumping websites up the search results for certain keywords. Doing so for the keyword “Real Estate” is obviously very hard, as literally millions of sites are vying for attention there. Searching for your name is (still) less competitive, but the Internet grows rapidly and exponentially so no matter how special you are, you will eventually compete for a few nanoseconds of search engine attention.

Search engines (the main ones being Google, Yahoo, and MSN) work by assigning a rank to each page, then sorting the search results in decreasing rank order. Many factors influence the page rank, the main ones being the quality of the text, the number and relevance of pages that link to this page, and the quality of the links to other pages. As a rule of thumb, you should create quality content, link to other relevant pages, and get others to link back to your pages. Search engines will penalize you and lower your page rank if you try to game the system, so don’t even think about “cheating”.

People Search and Online Reputation
A new breed of sites has become increasingly popular in recent years. These so called “people search” or “reputation” sites collect information about people, and some of them compile reputation scores based on the information found. Several of these sites let you edit your records, something you should definitely do. No clear leader has surfaced, as of yet, so you’d have to check each and every one of them and update your records where possible. These sites include: Spock, Zoominfo, Naymz, Rapleaf, Trufina, TrustPlus, PeekYou, and Wink.

A site called claims to be able to measure your online reputation¸ while other sites let you fix it in case you find some issues. ReputationDefender is one such site. For a modest fee, it claims to be able to scrub offensive content. I have my doubts about their ability to do that, but if you feel you must change something written about you online¸ this is probably one of the best ways to do it if at all possible.

Content Quality
On the web, content is king. Before publishing anything, make sure the quality is top notch, just the way you’d like to be perceived by others. Check your spelling and sentence structure, don’t use inappropriate words, and read what you write. Poorly written content reflects badly on you, regardless of what you have to say.

Consistency across online content is very important too. Make sure your personal information is consistent across sites by checking the spelling of your name, city, and state. Make sure your titles are consistent; for example, don’t use “Product Marketing Manager” on one site and “Manager of Product Marketing” on another. When describing your bio and talking about what you’ve done at a certain company, for instance, make sure not to contradict yourself across different sites.

A few words of caution
The information presented here is highly dynamic – a few months from now some of it will be outdated, as companies merge, get acquired, or go out of business. Make sure you apply your energy in the right direction by consulting the blogosphere. Some good starting points are Technorati, Sphere, and TechMeme (if they’re still around by the time you read this…)

Publishing all that information about yourself might freak you out. If you are careful, though, it’s nothing to worry about. Make sure not to reveal any personal information beyond your name, email address, city, state, country, and maybe your phone number. Anything else might be used against you. If you are worried about identity theft, consider using a service like LifeLock or TrustID.

HonestyOnline, Intelius, and others let you run background checks on people for a modest fee, and you don’t even need their social security number. Employers use these and similar tools, so why not preempt them and run a background check on yourself? You might be surprised at what comes up.

If you don’t like to get even more spam, don’t publish your email address in clear text on web pages. Either use something like “yh98 at cornell dot edu” or put your email address itself inside an image.

In Closing
A short while after you start creating online content, you are likely to climb up the search results and eventually show up in the first search page. People rarely browse beyond the first search results page, so this should be your benchmark indicating that your efforts are successful.At that point, most of the content found about you should be self-generated, consistent, and high quality. Your digital brand is now in good hands, supporting you in your career progress.