Deleting your digital past -- for good

Can you erase your tracks online? We tried to get a few bad mentions off the Net forever. Here's how we did.

An unsavory connection from your past. An annoying link to your name that's dragging down your career. A spicy quote you tossed off to a reporter that you wish you could take back.

As time goes by, more of us are being tailed by some little thing out there on the Web, an awful bit that emerges when someone Googles our names, a black mark that we'd like to erase before a colleague or a prospective employer sees it.

A whole industry -- known online reputation management -- has grown up around helping individual clients and corporate clients suppress negative information online by creating more positive and search-engine-friendly postings.

But what if you don't just want something massaged, manipulated or suppressed? What if you want it gone? Is it possible for an ordinary person to get some damaging tidbit entirely erased from the Web?

Computerworld decided to find out. We gave ourselves a week to try to expunge unwanted online mentions, using three real-life examples as test cases:

  • A recent college graduate with a distinctive last name would like to get rid of an entry on someone else's long-abandoned online journal. The entry mentions her full name in a rambling tale of drug-induced debauchery and sexual high jinks. It always shows up as the fourth or fifth result in a Google search on her name -- a real problem now that the young woman (let's call her WrongedGirl) is applying for jobs.

  • A freelance writer is mistakenly identified as a movie critic on Rotten Tomatoes, a popular site that aggregates movie reviews from print, TV and the Web. Although she personally admires Rotten Tomatoes, she worries that her byline juxtaposed next to the word "rotten" in the first few Google search results sets up an unpleasant association in the minds of prospective clients -- especially older business people who have no idea what Rotten Tomatoes is.

  • In an interview seven years ago, an IT professional gave a quote to Computerworld that included a salty phrase. She recently contacted the editors, asking them to either remove her name from the piece or prevent the article from being found in a search. Her goal: "I don't want any hits at all when my name is searched."
We started by calling a couple of online image management professionals for some free advice.

What not to do

If you're trying to get something erased from the Web, your first instinct might be to pursue legal action. Resist this urge, says Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender , an online reputation management and privacy company in the US.

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Tracy Mayor

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