The web is a vast collection point for data about individuals and organizations, whether true or false, flattering or misrepresentative. Since checking a person’s background, credentials and professional and social circles has become routine, we should be aware of our own digital footprint and actively manage the information available about us to ensure it reflects the image we want to project. Building a personal brand online should be based on active involvement, including reading blogs in our interest areas and participating in blog discussions. It is important to use one’s real name to avoid falling liable to misidentification. Having a Facebook page permits one to build and control a network, and exploring Twitter enables one to keep up with and contribute to current communications on topics of interest. By proactively building our personal brand online, we can control our identity, image and reputation in the digital world.

social web
personal information
false information
social networking
user profiles

Bulletin, December/January 2012


Analyzing Personal Presence on the Web and Building Your Brand

by Donyelle Murdock 

As the new web and cloud computing world changes, will the information about it change accordingly? The question that more than often poses itself is: How do we control and manage that changing information? In the last 10 years more information has been made very accessible to the public via the Internet. This statement is not to say that the information wasn’t available before, but now it is more accessible. Not only is information about our world changing, but also information about the people who live in it. 

In this technologically advanced society information is at our fingertips 24/7. Some information is the type that some people shouldn’t have access to. For example, it is fairly easy for a sexual offender to find out the campus layout of a child’s school. This access is possible because so much information can be found via the Internet. By the same token, it is simple for an admissions counselor to find information about potential students on the web. The question then becomes: How can I make sure the information available about me on the web reflects who I really am? As a prospective student living in Florida, it may not be easy to visit personally every institution to which one applies. Therefore, that prospective student needs to make sure that his or her first impression, whether in person or via a web profile, is a great impression. 

Having a healthy web profile gives you the opportunity as an entity or part of an organization to have more hands-on control over the information available about you. More important is knowing how to edit and manage information inconsistency. What does my digital footprint say about me? Is there more than one person with my name? Being informed about your image is the most fundamental aspect when trying to build your brand properly. As Houghton and Joinson [1] have shown in survey research, users of social networking sites are concerned about privacy. This article responds to those concerns with tips and advice on how to manage Internet knowledge about yourself while still enjoying social networking sites.

In 2008 Will Richardson, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, wrote the following: 

As the geeky father of a 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, one of my worst fears as they grow older is that they won’t be Googled well. Not that they won’t be able to use Google well, but that when a certain someone (admissions officer, employer, potential mate) enters ‘Tess Richardson’ into a search line of the browser, what comes up will be less than impressive. That those quick surfs through the top five hits will fail to astound with examples of her creativity, collaborative skills and change-the-world work. Or even worse, that no links about her will come up at all. I mean, what might ‘Your search did not match any documents’ imply? [2, p.16]

Richardson had a point. It is understood that for some information you have no control over its use and dissemination. But at some point, everyone, and I do mean everyone, should be knowledgeable or at least have a handle on the information available about them via the web. Not only should professionals worry about their information, but their children’s information as well. Someone could unknowingly put their children, co-workers, family – or any constituent, for that matter – at risk. Everyone should also be mindful that the information they make available does not hinder anyone else’s brand building. It would be a conflict if a student were trying to portray him or herself as a young professional via a Facebook page or if a “friend” failed to disclose that the latest house party pictures were posted and tagged, making the images available to multiple users of the social networking site. 

Once some information has been disclosed without your knowledge, what is the next step? Again the questions are: How do I make sure that I am being Googled well? What are the necessary steps to take to create a positive image of myself on the web? Concerning my collegiate peers, the bigger question is: Is this even important? Yes! Managing your personal image on the web is very important and doing so is worth the added stress. Your brand is important on the web, because, in essence, it’s the first impression you make with most people who want to know more about you and the things with which you are affiliated. If you take the time to maintain a professional demeanor, including professional dress, an impressive academic circle and being aware of your formal and informal conversations, then maintaining your personal brand online should be a no-brainer. Students and professionals alike should make an effort to clean house. I am referring to the person who has 3,692 friends on Facebook. Keeping your constituent circle smaller leaves less room for someone to unknowingly hinder your building a brand or identity. It makes sense to be friends with your friends, but just randomly having information available to people you do not know is potentially dangerous.

Who Wants to Know?
What are people looking for anyway, one may ask? Most Googlers want to find information about you, your friends, your job or university and to confirm your credentials. In some cases, boredom can cause a person to search for just about anything. Having idle time, whether in the airport, DMV office or a traffic jam, can lead to a very informative Google search. (Please be advised that I am not an advocate for using cellular and mobile devices while driving. It is dangerous and can cause fatal injuries. Also, it is illegal in most states.) 

As a student, I may Google-search my professors to get a better feel about who they are. Where are they from? Where did they teach and for how long? Where were their degrees awarded? Having access to this information is key because there have been many situations where professionals falsify their credentials. For example, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was fired for falsifying her credentials [3]. Who knows what an in-depth Google search would have found? Students want to know whether their professors have any relevant coursework concerning the particular course they will be instructing. My searching for information will reveal only two things: either the professors are who they say they are or the information that results from the search, as Richardson [2] stated, is “less than impressive.”

Chances are very high that someone will Google our names and affiliated institutions on a daily basis. Yes, you can be searched for without giving permission. Because this interaction seems to be inevitable and ongoing without needing permission, measures should be taken to make sure the right information will be available to the right people. You can’t believe it’s that important? Studies show that many employers and staffing companies search for potential employees on Facebook pages. In fact, employers may now ask for online social-network user names on pre-employment applications and use these tools to screen potential candidates. For the most part, human resources professionals use part of, if not their entire, real name in order to aid in their search for the correct individual.

Steps to Build Your Brand
So what are the proper steps individuals should take to ensure that their online images properly represent their brands? While there is no true science to building a personal brand via the web, many experts have proposed strategies that they think would assist in the effort [4]. Earlier, I mentioned being familiar with your digital footprint. According to one Webster dictionary, a digital footprint is defined as a collection of activities and behaviors recorded when an entity (such as a person) interacts in a digital environment. What would a search of your Internet browser links reveal? Are you doing more online shopping than researching information about your particular field? What are you interacting with in your digital environment? Would you be considered a workaholic, as all your web searches concern academic topics? Is it conducive to your brand? This evaluation is the first step to building your brand. 

Becoming engaged with relevant topics is essential. According to Richardson [2], there are five main steps, discussed below, to help build a personal learning network, but they are also pertinent to building a better brand. While there are many other experts offering DIY (do it yourself) brand-building steps, I feel that his are the most up-to-date and relevant. Your web presence will revolve around the avenues used to communicate. Communication via the web is now a standard for most professionals around the world and vital to many families and sets of friends. It is important that we concentrate on the avenues used to communicate in this digital world especially when privacy has been proven to be hard to protect [5]. Richardson’s five steps are as follows:

  1. Read blogs related to your passion. 
  2. Participate.
  3. Use your real name. 
  4. Start a Facebook page. 
  5. Explore Twitter. 

Step One: Read blogs related to your passion. Search out topics of interest at http://blogsearch.google.com, and see who shares those interests. For example, if you’re a “techy” visit open-source sites and search for software relevant to your interests. It’s okay to surf the web. Most digital footprints are composed of email correspondence and published work. Some forget that the web can be used as a personal pastime, too. Of course, it’s not baseball, but I don’t believe surfing the web is very far from being a sport. The Internet offers a plethora of topics from politics and sports, to homemaking tips and car tuning. Take advantage of available topics, and if there isn’t a market for your particular interest, now would be the perfect time to create a new genre. Being innovative is very attractive to potential employers and colleagues. So go for it!

Step Two: Participate. If you find bloggers out there who are writing interesting and relevant posts, share your reflections and experiences by commenting on their posts. This recommendation does not give a green light to engage in a full-blown blogger war with someone who may not share your passions or views. Remember you are in control. You do not have to befriend someone on Facebook. Twitter’s social network has a similar setup, as users must become “followers” to have access to the information you blog. Make the necessary decisions needed to maintain a professional profile. Remember affiliation plays a huge part in building your brand. It doesn’t make sense to befriend the town’s drunk when your potential employer is the AA. The same goes for web presence. You shouldn’t befriend a fellow blogger known for offensive rants or narrow-minded views. You are being held accountable for your own actions. So participate with caution.

Step Three: Use your real name. It’s a requisite step to being Googled well. Provide sparse information with caution, of course, as giving any personal information puts you at risk. Using your real name is very important, however. There is a chance that someone else may be found during a search intended for your information. This error can cause a problem, as previously stated, in which the right people will not be getting the right information. Make sure that you tie up loose ends like maiden names and or a recent marriage. Making sure that accurate information about you is available in a one-stop shop will improve your Google search results. Using websites like http://about.me gives users an opportunity to provide good information in a one-stop shop. Some people fall into a smaller category of “the damage is already done.” This category means that some users need more advanced options concerning managing their web presence. There are more advanced steps available as a solution for the double-identity search issue. Google has created a service called Google AdWords. This service gives users the opportunity to ensure that specific information is made available when users search for specific keywords. 

Step Four: Start a Facebook page. Educators and students need to understand the potential of social networking sites. Along with its potential come its threats. Ensure that you are well informed of the social networking sites that will be used in personal brand building. For example, the following links are reports of Facebook’s latest security blunders:

www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/facebook-tracks-you-even-after-leaving-site-20110926-1ktom.html

www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2042573/Facebook-privacy-issues-Social-network-watching-youre-logged-out.html

www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-28/facebook-under-fire-over-tracking-allegations/2956714 (In this case ABC is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)

Facebook is by far the leading social networking site, having overtaken the very popular MySpace in 2008. The functionality and security features of Facebook are in a constant state of flux. If you have not created a Facebook page, there is now an option to separate constituents into categories. In 2011, users were granted the additional option of separating their collegiate friends from their professional references. Most users of Facebook know that this social networking site is a mecca of information, from professional networking to much less interesting information that would be more important to an eighth-grade socialite. The following are some facts about Facebook.

Facebook.com average user figures and facts:

  • Average user has 130 friends on the site 
  • Average user sends 8 friend requests per month 
  • Average user spends an average of 15 hours and 33 minutes on Facebook per month 
  • Average user visits the site 40 times per month 
  • Average user spends 23 minutes (23:20 to be precise) on each visit 
  • Average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events 
  • Average user creates 90 pieces of content each month 
  • 200 million people access Facebook via a mobile device each day 
  • More than 30 billion pieces of content are shared each day 
  • Users who access Facebook on mobile devices are twice as active on Facebook compared to non-mobile users
  • Facebook generates a staggering 770 billion page views per month 

(For more detailed facts, see www.facebook.com or www.pingdom.com.) 
Step Five: Explore Twitter. Twitter (http://twitter.com) is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables users to exchange short updates of 140 characters or less. A downside is that some people may be intimidated by the user interface, but it doesn’t overshadow the fact that Twitter communicates in real time. Some experts argue that the “web is dead” and users are becoming more engaged with application use. Concerning Twitter, there are more than a dozen applications being used with various devices. I personally use the Twidroyd application with an Evo mobile device. Real-time updates supply users with information, taking little more time than an equivalent human conversation (depending on hardware and provider and whether the interaction occurs via a mobile application or on the World Wide Web).

Summary
What did we learn? Having a professional web presence counts. More often than we realize, we are being Googled without our knowledge or consent. Making sure that you are engaged properly on the web is key to building a personal Internet identity or brand. Damage control concerning existing information is possible with tools like Google AdWords. Web users should be knowledgeable about the social networking sites they use and be proactive about information security. The information being provided to the web should be enough to clear up information inconsistencies but not enough to jeopardize your reputation – or anyone else’s, for that matter. Periodic searches should be conducted to make sure that the right information is available to the right people. After beginning the five steps to brand building, a conscious effort to maintain the newly created profile should become easier. Have fun and remember to be yourself in person and on the web.

Resources Mentioned in the Article
[1] Houghton, D. J., & Joinson, A. N. (2010). Privacy, social network sites, and social relations. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 28(1-2), 74-94.

[2] Richardson, W. (November 2008). Footprints in the digital age: Giving students ownership of learning. Educational Leadership, 66(5), 16-19. Retrieved November 6, 2011 from www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Footprints-in-the-Digital-Age.aspx

[3] NPR (April 27, 2007). Falsified resume forces resignation of MIT Dean. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9870469.

[4] Boyd, D. M., & N.B., E. (2008). Social network sites: Definiton, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13:1, pp. 210-230. 

[5] Boyd, D. (May 2007). Social network sites: Public, private, or what? The Knowledge Tree, 13. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from http://kt.flexiblelearning.net.au


Donyelle Murdock is a master’s of information science candidate at North Carolina Central University in Durham. She is a published writer, having written for the Raleigh Public Record and the Triangle Tribune. She lives in the Research Triangle Park area, interning as a computer technician at NCCU. Donyelle can be reached at dmurdoc2<at>eagles.nccu.edu