Even if you don't know what a Google search of your name digs up, job recruiters might.
A police record from 10 years ago, a forgotten blog rant, or an embarrassing photo might be the first things to show up in search results – information a job candidate might not want a future employer to know.
Most people do not know what a simple search of his or her name brings up until it is too late, said Andy Beal, founder of a Raleigh-based online reputation management company, Trackur.
The company has grown nearly 800 percent since its first year of operations three years ago, said Beal, who is Trackur's only employee.
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In recent years, several companies like Beal's have popped up, promising to change a client's online image.
Through keyword placement and linking, reputation management companies say they can shift down the negative news, placing newer information at the top of a search.
Search engines such as Google rank Web pages on popularity and frequency and location of keywords. Sometimes the information Google considers relevant is outdated or from a transgression that a person dealt with and paid for in the past, Beal said.
“In their real-life world, they've corrected the situation,” he said. “They've apologized. They've paid the fine, whatever it may be, but it still lingers on Google and has a negative impact.”
It's all about recognizing how your online life affects your life offline.
“Everyone in American society is starting to stand up and take notice that they have an online reputation,” said Paul Pennelli, spokesman for Silicon Valley-based ReputationDefender.
He said reputation management appeals to people in their 20s and 30s, since they grew up with the Internet and have a large digital footprint. It is also popular among job seekers and others who depend on their professional reputation, like doctors and lawyers.
More than 80 percent of executive and corporate recruiters turn to the Web to research job candidates, and 43 percent say they have turned down a job seeker because of information they found, according to a study released last August by ExecuNet, an online social network for business professionals.
Yet online reputation management is full of gray areas ethically, said Deepak Sirdeshmukh, an assistant professor of business management at N.C. State University.
“The fact that you are able to get personal information about people [on the Internet] is a new phenomenon,” he said. “Therefore, that people want to find legal ways to obscure this would be the logical next step.”
A problem arises, he said, when people or companies try to mask information related to their jobs.
Some of the personal information online – that was previously unavailable – may be unrelated to a person's performance on the job, like a dispute with a neighbor. In instances like that, Sirdeshmukh said it is understandable that people would want to hide details from future employers.
Pennelli said changing the order of search results is no different than buying new clothes or attending an expensive college to wow an employer.
“It's an evolution of the same mentality, just bringing it onto the Internet,” he said.
But online reputation management isn't for everyone. Its cost alone may discourage some people.
ReputationDefender charges $99-$499 for its MyEdge product, which lets customers pick what they want to appear in search results and helps get that information online.
New Jersey-based Internet Reputation Management, which was started less than a year ago, charges about $900 a month to clean up the first page of a person's search results, which can take four to six months, said company partner Carl Sgro.
Trackur charges an average $2,500 for a basic consultation. For some clients, online management can cost more than $10,000, Beal said.
But even if you don't hire someone to clean up your online image, you should still monitor it, Beal said.
He also recommends that people deal with transgressions when they clear them from the top of an Internet search. Moving the material down only shifts the details to another search page, where it can still be found – and questioned by potential employers.
“There are no guarantees once or ever that negative items on Google will disappear,” he said.