It's not what other people think of you that matters. It's what they can find out about you on the Web that will affect your ability to get a job or promotion, rent or buy a house, be accepted into the school of your choice, or find the love of your life.
It's not enough to have the respect and admiration of your family and your peers; you need Google juice as well. Because if someone Googles your name and finds nasty things written about you, your credibility could be destroyed in an instant.
The postings could be the rantings of a disgruntled former employee or an angry ex-spouse, or of someone posing as you, or even someone with the same name, in any case, you're toast.
"Google is no longer just a search engine; it's a reputation engine," says Chris Dellarocas, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies online reputations. The first step in taming this beast is to find out what's out there by Googling all variants of your name, your phone number, and your address.
If you've put stuff on your own sites that you don't want Google to find, you can ask the search engine to delete it from its results. If someone else posted this material, though, Google won't remove it. You'll have to ask the site owner to take it down or hire someone to do it for you (more on this later).
Comb the Web
Even the mighty Google can't catch everything. For example, many of Facebook's 60 million profiles are inaccessible to search engines. So even if you haven't created a page on Facebook, MySpace or one of the gazillion other social networks, someone else might have set up a spoof page to make you look bad.
Start by looking at so-called "people search" engines. Sites like Pipl, Spock, Wink and ZoomInfo scrape information from other Web sites (like social networks) and slap it together into personal profiles. It's not uncommon for such sites to mix information about different people with the same name and present them as a single person. That's not so good if you've got the same name as, say, a porn star or a disgraced former MP.
Spock goes a step beyond; its bot software selectively pulls individual words from your sites and adds them as "tags" to your profile. Taken out of context, some tags can be extremely damaging. For example Spock once tagged political blogger John Aravosis as a "pedophile" because he'd written about Congressman Mark Foley. In many cases you can contact the sites and have information removed or corrected. Spock will email you if your profile has been changed, but only if you register with the site.
There are also hundreds of online address books that contain information on you, some of which surely won't be accurate. For US$5 a month, Reputation Defender offers a service called MyPrivacy that locates your listings in some of the major Internet white pages and lets you remove your data.
And don't forget Wikipedia. You may have a false or defamatory entry in the world's most popular online encyclopedia and never know it. In the most infamous case, retired journalist John Siegenthaler publicly outed the encyclopedia for a false entry that implied he played a role in the Kennedy assassinations. If you've got a Wiki page and want to keep it, you'll need to keep an eye out for erroneous edits.