Is there a right to be forgotten? Forget about it.
Because of a court ruling last week in Luxembourg, Europeans can get embarrassing personal data removed from Internet search services. But it seems unlikely the United States would follow suit — that pesky First Amendment, you know. So your most humiliating online moments will always be a Google search away.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make it hard to find that old story about the barroom brawl back in college. Google and other search services won’t erase this information, but they’ll help you keep it under wraps. By taking control of your Internet identity, you can push the good stuff about yourself onto the first page of a Google search and shove the brawl story to page 8, or 85, where hardly anybody will notice.
The practice of online stain removal is called “reputation management.” Dozens of companies offer the service to individuals and businesses who spend thousands of dollars a month protecting their digital good names. You and I can manage on a lot less. Indeed, a lot of the best reputation management moves will cost you nothing.
Google’s first page of “Hiawatha Bray” search results is innocent stuff, but you never know. Perhaps I’ll be accused of plagiarism some day — falsely, of course. Or maybe I’ll find myself on an elevator with Beyonce’s sister Solange. Either way, I’ve learned enough about reputation management to put up a pretty good fight.
The first rule of online self-defense is obvious enough: Avoid doing stupid things in public. You never know who’s watching, and posting.
Here’s the second rule: Make a name for yourself. Some people think they’re safe if they stay off the Internet.
Instead, this creates a reputational vacuum where others can define you — your friends or your enemies.
So sign up for the biggest and best-known social media services — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus. And use your real name, not a nickname or pseudonym.
It’s also worth spending a little money to turn your name into an Internet address, like hiawathabray.com, and set up a personal website. It’s cheap; Webs.com, for instance, can set you up with your own website for $30 a year.
Internet search engines give personal websites and social media high rankings in their results, so people who go looking for you are more likely to see these pages first. And of course, you control what is written on them.
So don’t post things you might come to regret.
Instead, publish lots of interesting but harmless personal information on each page.
Include a photo, a simple biography, information about your interests and hobbies. Again, the more information on your various pages, the higher they’ll rank in a Web search.
Google and other search services also give higher rankings to pages that link to other sites on the same topic.
So make sure that all your various online haunts are linked to each other. Put your LinkedIn link on Facebook and your Twitter link on your personal domain page.
How often do you need to update all these pages? More is better. If you’re starting out with a healthy reputation, you can get by with fresh postings every now and then. But you may have to become more aggressive in posting new, positive stuff if you face a sudden surge of bad online publicity.
By the way, Google makes it easy to track what people are saying about you. Just set up a Google Alert, a service that searches for new postings on any topic, then sends you an e-mail heads-up. Go to google.com/alert and create an alert for your name to get pinged whenever you’re mentioned somewhere on the great wide Web.
If it all seems like too much work, BrandYourself.com offers a free service that will help you preserve your online image and takes only an hour or so.
There’s also Reputation.com, which charges as little as $100 a year to keep your online records clean.
The company’s chief executive, Michael Fertik, said some clients with serious reputation woes pay up to $10,000 a month. For that, the company provides constant monitoring of your name, careful tailoring of your personal Internet sites to boost them in the search engine rankings, and — according to Fertik — secret algorithms that can fine-tune a client’s online image in ways that go beyond the reputational basics.
I have no way to judge whether Fertik’s secret formulas do a decent job of buffing your digital history.
Luckily, few people need to find out. With a little effort and not much expense, most of us can defend our own reputations.
The Internet won’t forget. But what it remembers is mostly up to you.