By Anna Vander Broek
You are who Google says you are.
They say first impressions last a lifetime and increasingly those impressions are made online. Perspective employers Google you. Ditto the cute guy you met at the gym. Your landlord can check out your Facebook friends as easily as your cousin in Kansas City. The bad news is that the Internet has made it nearly impossible to hide your past. The good news is that you can use it to craft your future.
Take Will Lindow. In March, when the 28-year-old Texan decided to ditch his job at advertising giant Omnicon Group to pursue his passion for composing music, he knew the first step in his career change was to redefine himself online.
In order to quickly re-establish himself, Lindow turned to Wix.com, a free (for basic services) Web site which allows users to create flash Web pages. He created a page highlighting his musical talents and ambitions and then sent the link to a few people.
A week or two later Lindow got a response from a director doing a documentary film in Dallas. Now Lindow's scoring the film. He's also working with a local Austin band and last week got a gig doing a theme song for a children's animation film. It's only been three months.
"I reinvented myself online," says Lindow
The first step to getting control over your online identity is Googling yourself. If you don't do it, someone else will. Douglas Rothstein, managing partner of Redstone Partners, an executive search firm based in Manhattan and Cambridge, Mass., will Google ( GOOG - news - people ) potential candidates. "We'll scratch beneath the surface and see what's in the public domain," he says.
Quick Tips: Managing Your Online Identity
Individual Google hits make a difference (no one wants to see those pictures of your knee surgery), but so does the larger story they tell about you. "Treat Google like your résumé," says Michael Fertik, founder of the online reputation management service, ReputationDefender.com. If your first five Google hits highlight your old job as a market analyst it may be hard to sell yourself as a travel writer.
After you know what already exists about you online, start reshaping that information. Establish a purpose. Do you want to use the Internet to find a job or promote a new career? Or do you simply want to keep your online reputation clean in case your Aunt Sally ever Googles your name?
Look at things in context. It's easy to misrepresent yourself through seemingly innocent information if it appears in the wrong place. If you want to build up your career as a beer expert, those Facebook pictures of you double-fisting beers will probably help. But it may not if you're trying to be a kindergarten teacher.
"Know what you want and who you are," says Fertik. This may mean you need to choose what to keep online and what to remove. You don't always show your serious side to your friends or your party side to your boss. The same rules apply online.
If you're unhappy with your Google hits, there are a few things you can do. Think about using a service like Fertik's own ReputationDefender.com, which can help you manipulate your Google results, among other things, pushing positive links higher and negative ones lower. Giant sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter will be higher in Google searches, so focus on those sites first.
Creating your own Web site is a great way to give yourself a professional edge and will usually float up to the top of Google hits. Redstone Partner's Rothstein says he strongly advises his clients to create their own Web site. "[Employers] are looking for someone who has taken the time and effort to put together their own professional site," he says. "It shows perspective employers you … will go the extra mile."
Ask for an outside perspective. "Start with your own opinion about how you're presenting yourself," says Fertik. "But then maybe ask a friend or a professional for some insight."
Most importantly, stay up-to-date. A new client to your architecture firm may rather see you can design an office space, not your high school tennis scores.
"Google is now a utility for every life transaction," says Fertik. "You have to keep yourself fresh."