Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Name Is ...

Please search for your name in a search engine, whichever one you prefer. Put quotes around your name or not, use a nickname or not, whatever you like. Now: are you satisfied with what you see in the results? If someone else searches for your name, what are they likely to think?

You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, even when that impression comes from a web search.

This blog was born two years ago because I wasn't happy with the search results for my name. At that time the top Google results were IEEE presentations from years ago on Resilient Packet Ring and Ethernet OAM. So lets check how its going:

Google Search results #1, linkedin #2, listorious #3

Within the top four is ok. The results on Bing are significantly different, this site appears on page three. Bing appears to not automatically treat the two words as a name, so it finds pages where both words appear separately. Enclosing the two words in quotes to enforce proximity refines the search considerably, to the first page.

Claim Your Name Online

In 2010, I think everyone should have a URL to use whenever a personal link is needed. It doesn't have to be a blog: it could be your Facebook or Twitter page, a flickr group you contribute to, LinkedIn, etc, just something to link to whenever the situation arises. This question will come up more and more often as the Internet becomes ever more embedded into our society.

Its worthwhile spending a bit of time on the selection. Once you start building up links to this URL it will be difficult to change them. If you point to a domain you don't own, like twitter/facebook/flickr/etc, you have no control over whether they remain reachable. Those services seem like they will last forever, but so did GeoCities and Compuserve in their day. Personally I recommend using a domain name which you own. You don't have to run your own server, for example Blogger, Posterous and Tumblr are all free hosted platforms which allow you to use your own domain name.

Once you've picked a URL which conveys the positive first impression you want, start using it. twitter, LinkedIn, stackoverflow, and many other services you might already use let you include a link in your profile. Comments on blogs (like this one) let you use a URL for your name. You can also sign up for a Google profile, which can link to all of the services you want and will appear on name-query search pages.

Strategy: Search Engine Optimization

Once you decide you want to control the search results for your name, it is helpful to understand the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). There is an astonishing amount of information online about SEO, much of it seemingly written by people who consider it a kind of magic for which they exchange incantations and arcane formulae. Most of it makes no sense to me, but a couple things did sink in:

  1. The number of links pointing to a page matters. Writing an astonishingly useful resource which lots of people will link to is a great strategy. I'm still working on that strategy. It turns out to be difficult. Who knew?
  2. When it comes to keywords, DNS > URL > title > body. That is, a keyword occurring in the site's DNS name is weighted more than a keyword in the URL for a page. The URL is weighted more than the same keyword in the page <title>, which is itself weighted more than the body of the page.

Tactics: Kneecap the Competition

We're firmly in the web2.0 era, with numerous social web sites vying for our attention. They are also vying for our identity, encouraging people to sign up using their real name. As these are very popular services, they will have lots of inbound links and quickly achieve a higher search ranking for your name than something you create on your own. This is especially true if you use your full name: your profile will contain your name in the URL, which is weighted more heavily. You'll note that in the search results above, two of the top three hits use my name in the URL while the third has it in the <title>.

Stackoverflow change name from denton-gentry to dgentryThere used to be more, with StackOverflow and friendfeed rounding out the top five. Fortunately the username could be changed on both services, relegating them lower in the list. So if you aren't happy with the top results for your name, its often possible to do something about it. You can change your login to an abbreviation or pseudonym, or delete accounts which you no longer use.

Think Long Term

Nudging positive material into the search results for your name is one thing. Its equally important, perhaps even more important, to keep material which reflects poorly on you out of the results. Jeremy Toeman published a good article about things one should never do online. I think the common sense rule is not to publish things you would regret later, not even if you think you understand privacy settings or conceal the URL.

Thats all. Please let me know your experiences with the search results for your name.