Peter Kistler used to have a Google problem.
In college, he discovered a startling reason why so few employers were responding to his resume on job boards: The first result that showed up when someone Googled Kistler's name was an article about a convicted sex offender who had used drugs and done jail time. But Kistler's record was clean. The article was about another man with the same name and a long rap sheet.
"I am not a drug dealer," reads the message on the sign that Kistler holds in a promotional photo for the startup he co-founded after this discovery. The company, BrandYourself, aims to help people control what shows up when others Google their name.
On BrandYourself's website, users can submit three web pages that they would like to appear in the top spots of their name's Google search results, along with any content they wish to bury. BrandYourself analyzes each piece of content and provides tools and tactics to increase or reduce its visibility on Google, all at no cost to the user. Boosting or burying more than three pieces of content through BrandYourself's site costs a subscription fee, with pricing that starts at $9.99 a month.
That's less than what most online reputation firms charge for such services. Online reputation firms tend to target businesses with marketing budgets or doctors and lawyers willing to pay relatively hefty fees for others to polish their Internet image. Reputation.com, one such reputation firm, charges its customers at least $1,000 a year, or $83 a month.
"We hated that these firms overcharged customers for something they could easily do themselves if they simply had a platform that educated and empowered them to do so," BrandYourself's site states.
But does BrandYourself really work? After all, there's a ton of value in controlling the top spots of your Google results. A recent study found that more than 94 percent of users click on the first page of results, while less than 6 percent visit the second page and select a result displayed there.
To find out, I decided to try out BrandYourself for myself by submitting two articles that I'm particularly proud of. The site instructed me to follow some basic steps to boost the pages' rankings. Then about a week later, I received an email alerting me to the fact that the two articles now reside in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots of Google search results for my name.
Thankfully, I have nothing too damning to bury (save a few spring break Facebook photos). Turns out, the same goes for the average BrandYourself user, according to Patrick Ambron, one of the company's three cofounders. "Most of our users aren't on the platform to fix a Google problem," he said. "They simply want to be more visible, which is why the product is free, to help those people as well."
According to a 2010 study by the research firm Cross-Tab Marketing Services, 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human resources professionals report that their companies require them to do online research about their candidates. And 70 percent of the surveyed recruiters said they have rejected candidates because of information found online.
"The first few results of your name are all you've got," said Dan Schwabel, managing partner of Millenial Branding LLC, a personal branding agency.
"Searchers -- whether they're recruiters or consumers -- have little time to gather information about who you are," Schwabel said. "They're increasingly relying on Google and social networks, and if you can't put your best foot forward there, or if you don't appear at all, they're going to go with someone else."
Here are six easy steps -- based on Ambron's advice -- to adopt so you can start taking control of your own results:
1. Google yourself. Most people find that the top search results for their name fall into one of three categories: negative, irrelevant and the "hey that's not me" sort. Once you know the results for your name, you can take action.
2. Claim your domain name. Visit a site like GoDaddy.com and purchase all domains containing your name (yourname.com, yourname.me, etc.). It's the most important thing you can do for 10 bucks. These show up high in searches for your name. So even if you're not planning to create a personal website, you'll prevent others from hijacking Google search results of your name.
3. Build a personal website. With free tools like Wordpress and Tumblr, anyone can quickly build a website. This will be an important hub of information about you that shows up high in results.
4. Set up profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Search engines tend to rank these social networks' links high, so you should definitely have a presence on them. Even if you don't plan on using your accounts much, it keeps other people from hijacking search results of your name.
5. Do some basic search engine optimization. Use your name wherever possible (Patrick Ambron not Pattyboy22, say), and link all your various pieces of online content to one another. This gives your content a huge boost.
6. Sign up for alerts. When your name appears in a news article or blog post, Google.com/alerts will let you know about it. Socialmention.com also provides alerts that will inform you when your name pops up in a tweet or is tagged in a photo on Flickr or Facebook.