Do College Students Need to Worry About Their Online Reputation?

It’s back-to-school time, which got me thinking about an issue that’s becoming more of a concern as the years go on — what employers are finding online about college-aged job seekers.

I doubt that any students are reading this blog, but if you know of any you might want to pass this article on to them so I can talk to them directly (and if you’re their parent, they probably won’t listen to you anyway).

Do college students need to worry about their online reputation? Well, not all employers will perform a Google search when hiring, but enough do nowadays to make it a concern of anyone looking for a job. And since you’ll soon be starting on a professional career, it would be wise to consider the image you present online.

I’m not talking about posting embarrassing pictures of yourself on Facebook, since those shouldn’t show up on a Google search (unless Facebook once again changes its privacy settings). YouTube videos are another matter, and if you’ve posted something that shows you in a less-than-professional light, you may want to consider taking it down.

Now, what will a prospective employer find when they do a search on your name? Is there anything they would see that says “Here’s a person worthy of hiring”? If not, it’s time to start building an online image so that the first page of a Google search is full of websites that paint a positive picture of you, both as a person and a potential employee.

Here are some ideas to consider:

1) Online Forums

Post to online forums in your field. By the time you reach your senior year you should be knowledgeable enough to participate in discussions about your field of study, even if it’s merely to ask intelligent questions. And keep it courteous — no personal attacks or complaining. Show yourself to be a thoughtful, informed participant.

And don’t use a clever pseudonym like “webhacker347”. Use your name — the one someone will enter in a search engine. You’re in the professional world now, so no more hiding behind an online handle.

2) Published Papers

If you’ve published a paper with your professors, find where it is online and start creating links to that page. Put a link to the paper on your Facebook page, and get as many people as you know to do likewise.

This will help boost it in the rankings, as long as the anchor text for the links includes your name. That is, the link someone clicks on to go to the website should be your name and the title of the paper, not the name of the website. This way, Google will know that the page should rank higher under a search for your name.

3) Blogs

Create a professional blog about your field of interest. This would be separate from the blog you now have about college life, partying, your family and friends, weird things you like, or anything else you’ve been sharing with the world. It could be a simple as observations about what’s going on in the industry, or what you’ve learned about the history of your field.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an electrical engineer or a classical literature major, you can find something to write about. One idea is to sign up for Google Alerts to get daily or weekly news articles about some aspect of your field that interests you. Read the articles, then simply write a synopsis or your own observations about what’s happening. That shows an employer you’re keeping up to date on the latest developments in the industry.

Again, your name needs to be associated with the blog so that it shows up near the top of a search for your name.

4) Your Own Website

If you don’t own the domain name www.YourName.com, it may be too late, since someone else with the same name as yours may have already taken it. But go register something as close as you can, perhaps including your middle initial or full name. And go for the .com version, rather than .info or .name.

You may already have a website through the university, where the URL is something like www.univ.edu/student/personal/pages/your-name.html. It’s time to get your own site where you own the domain name and can choose where you want it hosted.

What do you put on your site? Whatever you want a prospective employer to see. A brief bio, your interests, your resume, a link to your blog and other online info about you. And think of this as a site you’ll be continually updating over the years. Someday you’ll be looking for another job, and your next employer will do a search on you. Let them find a website that makes a good impression on them.

5) LinkedIn

By the time you graduate, you should have a LinkedIn account. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn pages show up on Google searches. This is where professionals post information and make contact with others in their field, so keep this info up to date.

I know there are thousands of ways to participate in the online world and get your name out there. Trouble is, you don’t always have control over how your name is associated with these sites or how well they rank on a search for your name. The ideas above are the most straightforward ways to build a positive online reputation, and which give you at least some control over the content and search engine ranking.

The advantage of doing all this is that as these sites start to rank higher, they will push anything else about you off of the first page or two of a Google search. That makes it less likely that a prospective employer will see those embarrassing party videos of you that someone posted, and which you’d like to bury.

You don’t have to do this all at once. Just do a little bit each week or each month and keep checking the search engine results to see how your pages are ranking. Before you know it, you’ll have established a presence online that shows you to be a person someone would want to hire.