It’s a rare – probably non-existent – person that gets through life without making some sort of cock-up to be regretted down the track.
In real life, memories of that drunken incident, inappropriate comment or angry tirade tend to fade or be forgiven over time. Make those same mistakes online, though, and you can be sure Google will be reminding you and the rest of the world of your blunders for years to come.
Muck up badly enough, and that online trail may cost you potential jobs, business opportunities or even romantic relationships.
Even posting under a pseudonym may not protect you, as the former head of Victoria Police’s Professional Standards unit has discovered. He resigned after he admitted to making “crude, coarse and inappropriate” comments under a false profile online.
So if you’ve let your keyboard fingers fly without thinking, found yourself the subject of unwanted media attention, gone bankrupt or even committed a crime years ago, how can you begin to wipe the slate clean?
Delete what you can
Judy Sahay, founder of digital agency Crowd Media Group, recommends deleting unwanted material on accounts or blogs you control.
That might include anything from your personal Facebook page (make sure you also have tight security settings), to Twitter, Instagram, blogs or even Gumtree.
However, it may take a few weeks for Google to remove the index on the account, meaning this material will no longer pop up when someone’s searching for you online.
Such little apps, so much room for a snafu.
Ask others for mercy
If you’ve commented or been featured on someone else’s online accounts, all you can really do – short of hiring a lawyer in extreme cases – is ask the publisher to remove the material and cross your fingers they’re willing and able.
Sahay says it’s not uncommon for someone to leave a scathing online restaurant review, for example, which doesn’t always create a great impression of the reviewer. “Generally when they do that they’re really angry about the experience. Five years later you look back and go, ‘why did I write that?’”
“With Instagram and Facebook pages it’s open-sourced, which means unless you have control over that, it’s not in your best interest to do anything on other people’s assets.”
“Essentially, you want to work your way through the list of sites that you retrieved when you searched your name on Google and eliminate the inappropriate ones as best you can.”
Build your own, more favourable content
Sahay says creating your own content helps push negative or embarrassing material further down Google search results.
Contributing via LinkedIn or Twitter is the way to go, as is creating your own website – preferably with your full name in the URL.
Images and videos also tend to rate strongly on Google, Sahay says.
One of the best ways to build your brand reputation is to put up a video (preferably on YouTube) on who you are, what you do.
“It’s first impressions. If they get a really good vibe about you a video is a good, 360 degree way of showing who you are.”
Balance out your reviews
A bunch of bad online reviews is not going to do you any favours, says Brookes.
“If you were involved in a business with a lot of negative criticism, try to balance out by obtaining some positive recommendations,” he says. “But don’t suddenly add 12 positive testimonials overnight or it’s going to look highly contrived.”
The best advice? Think before you post – always.
Own your mistakes
Brookes says it’s virtually impossible to erase your entire digital past.
“There’s a really high probability that anything about you that was previously posted online will be retrievable one way or another.”
Sometimes damage control is less about removing a trail of data and more about managing the relationship with a recruiter or potential employer, he says.
Brookes recommends coming in prepared with a plausible explanation as to why you did what you did – and how you’ve changed since to ensure it won’t happen again.
One method of doing this is through ‘brand storytelling’ – for instance on your own website, or that of your business.
“In sharing your history you do actually share some of the warts,” says Brookes.
For example you could say: “I was a terrible businessperson and I went broke three times and I then I discovered ‘A-B-C’ which has turned my business skill around.
“It’s an opportunity to disclose some mistakes you’ve made in the past.”