When I was 20 years old, I made a website for a college course about building a digital identity. Today, it makes me cringe—largely because the site has become such a stubbornly resilient piece of my digital identity.
At the time, I was proud. In a matter of weeks, I had learned to cobble together a series of letters and symbols into a code that'd transform into a real, live website for readers everywhere. But seeing it 10 years later is like looking back at embarrassing old family videos, pondering why you would ever say or wear what you did.
The site still appears—in all its lilac and teal glory—on the first page of search results whenever anyone Googles my name. A family video the whole world can see.
How could this be? I’ve since lived in five different cities, maintained active accounts on social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, and written probably 1,000 articles as a full-time journalist—all of which live online somewhere. And yet the amateur site that shows me beaming and sunburned the summer before I enrolled at University of Florida remains in the 7th position when someone searches my name on Google.
Sources can see it when they check out my credentials. Prospective employers can find it when researching my background. Heck, people I've dated could have lost interest after reading about my self-proclaimed love of 'chick lit.'
Every year, thousands of people shell out money for help managing their online image, with price points ranging from as little as $10 a month for software to guide you in cleaning up your search results to up to $25,000 for a custom-fit solution. If I wanted this website hidden on Google, would I have to become one of them?
Determined to rid my search results of this unsophisticated college project, I set out to learn just what has made the site so sticky, what I could do to remove it, and what it would cost me.
Weaponizing the Internet
In an era of doxing and revenge porn, a slightly embarrassing class assignment is not the worst web reputation problem to have. But it is a light-hearted version of an issue we all increasingly face: How much control do we really have over what people see about us online?
“We amass a giant online presence today, whether we want to or not,” says Patrick Ambron, CEO of BrandYourself, which charges $99 for a year-long subscription to its software. “And that online information is increasingly used to make decisions about you.”
People who seek out online reputation managers at places like BrandYourself tend to fall into two buckets: proactive and defensive. (I’ve placed myself in a rare third bucket: People who confess about a silly website from their past at an editorial brainstorm meeting.)
Proactive people are generally in certain life transitions—graduating from college, applying for jobs, or launching a new business, for example. They want to be sure prospective employers or clients see strong, accurate results.
Defensive people, on the other hand, are trying to address problematic results. These can span from comments a disgruntled former employee posted online, to sharing a name with a criminal, to being the victim of defamatory insults.
One of the wackier recent examples? A real estate agent in Huntsville, Alabama, upset a stranger with an exchange in the comments section of a news article shared on Facebook. The stranger responded by posting the real estate agent's headshot alongside a graphic story on a website created to shame women who sleep with married men. That completely fabricated post was then shared in a Re/Max Facebook group. (Read the whole tale in this Gizmodo story.)
Cases of stranger character assaults like that are rare, but "weaponizing the Internet" is not, Ambron says.
Yet outside of copyright infringement or the strict privacy violations outlined by Google, removing negative results is rarely possible. Solving both proactive and defensive issues usually requires publishing new positive material—creating websites, writing blogs, and actively updating social media—in an effort to drown out the negative.
That’s exactly what BrandYourself’s free Reputation Report tells me to do when it scans my search results. Afterward, I talked with one of the company’s reps for a free consultation, and he told me my online presence looked pretty solid. I might consider enhancing it with a personal website, though.
“Kind of like the one you made in college, but, you know...more professional looking,” he says.
Purple clip-art flowers aren’t professional. Noted.
While researching this story, I quickly learned that the first page of Google results is the golden standard among reputation managers. More than 90% of searchers don't click on links beyond the first page, according to a study by Chitika, an online advertising group.
“If you can control what people can see on page one of Google, you’ve effectively won the battle,” says Rich Matta, CEO of ReputationDefender, where prices run from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the severity of the ask.
Controlling that real estate doesn't come easy, though. It can take weeks or months for new, positive content to rise to the top of Google. For challenging cases, Matta's company tells clients to expect a year-long commitment. Clients provide extensive biographical information and answer questions, and then a team at ReputationDefender creates content about them that's optimized for Google's algorithm.
I find the first page metric hard to believe, based strictly on my own Googling habits, but I take it as good news for my quest. Over the years, my college website has slowly moved toward the bottom of my first page of results. So, pretty soon, it will naturally be pushed to page two, where hardly anyone outside of creepers like me will find it, right?
This website was biographical—I blab about where I grew up, my family, and how wonderful my friends are. It’s different from results that were simply written by me. Google knows the difference, Matta says. And its algorithm prioritizes biographical information for individuals' search results.
The site also lives on the University of Florida’s website, which Google considers trustworthy. Matta tells me Moz, a service that measures search strength, scores ufl.edu's domain authority at 91 out of 100. (You can download MozBar, a free Chrome extension, to see the page and domain authority of any website you visit.) And finally, Google wants to show users a variety of sources on the top page of results. This site provides a nice mix alongside my Twitter, LinkedIn and author pages.
All of these characteristics help explain the sneaky staying power of this class assignment. What's more, drawing attention to the site, leading more people click on it or link back to it would only reinforce the high placement.
“Ironically by writing this story, you’d probably be giving it more life,” Matta says.
Before spending money to hire a reputation manager to hide my college site, the BrandYourself consultant suggests I reach out to the school and simply ask if they can remove it.
Easy enough. Shortly after I email UF's College of Journalism and Communications, my website is taken down for free. Craig Lee, the web administrator, says he occasionally receives requests—sometimes up to three a month—to take down one of the websites made over 15 years the course existed.
My story about an embarrassing website ends with a luxury few have: free removal. Of course, it hasn't escaped me that, 10 years from now, I might look back at this very article and cringe at my use of the word 'creeper.' Such is the risk we all take when sharing personal things on the Internet—giving up control in a digital world where rights about what should be shared and what should be forgotten are far from clear.