How often do you search the Internet for yourself? If you're like most Americans, the answer is: not often enough. That's bad because what you find when you do will likely surprise you, and not necessarily in a good way.

Those are the findings of a new survey of 1,000 U.S. adults sponsored by the domain extension Among respondents, 24 percent of adults in general--and 43 percent of Millennials--said they'd been negatively affected by information about them online. When they did search themselves, 20 percent found inaccurate information, about 33 percent found their content had been shared without permission, and 12 percent said they were unpleasantly surprised at what they found.

Even those who haven't had that experience worry that they will. More than half of adults in general, and more than two thirds of Millennials, are concerned that online information about them could negatively affect their reputations. Those concerns are well-founded. The survey also showed that most of us use online tools to learn something about the people we meet and do business with. Forty-two percent of overall respondents, and 57 percent of Millennials have changed their minds about a colleague or friend based on what they learned about that person online. And many reported performing Internet searches before their first meeting with a doctor, work contact, or date.

The stakes get even higher if you're job-hunting. According to an article on the website, 70 percent of recruiters have turned down candidates based on information found online, and 84 percent believe online information will affect hiring decisions all or most of the time over the next five years.

Yet despite all these valid concerns, few of us do much to monitor our online reputations. Sixty percent of respondents admitted that they never do searches on themselves, and of those who do, 47 percent do it only once or twice a year. Only seven percent have alerts set up for their names, and only five percent use reputation management software. The exception--not surprisingly--are those who've already been harmed by online information. Of those who'd had that unpleasant experience, 77 percent reported that they now regularly check for online information on themselves.

They waited till it was too late but the rest of us don't have to. Here are some steps you should take right now to keep your online footprint from turning into a liability:

1. Do a regular search on your name. 

One quick and easy way to get an idea of your online reputation is to enter your name into Google, Bing, or another search engine. If your name isn't as unusual as mine, try adding your employer, home town, organization where you're active, or other extra information into the search. (And if your name happens to be Jim Smith, you can join a club based on that fact alone.) 

2. Search yourself on social media.

This is slightly more time-consuming, because you'll want to check Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest. On Facebook, where reputations are so often made and broken, remember to check your friends' walls, your apps, events, etc.

3. Check court records. 

In many places, public records can be found online, so while you're at it, make sure there aren't any bits of legal unpleasantness floating around to embarrass you.

4. Fix what you find.

If you yourself posted whatever it is that's embarrassing you, then it's usually a fairly straightforward matter to remove it again, although it can take a while to actually disappear, and even once it does people may still find it in cached pages.

If the unpleasant information was posted by someone else, you will likely have to contact whoever put it there and ask that person to remove it, although Facebook and Google do have procedures for removing inaccurate or inappropriate content on your own.

And needless to say, if someone posted a piece of writing such as a blog post, or a photo that you took without your permission, that's a copyright violation that should be rectified quickly once you point it out.

5. Overwhelm the bad stuff with good stuff.

You may not be able to remove all the reputation-damaging material you find about yourself online. But you can make things better, by raising your online profile in a positive way so that anything bad is pushed further and further down in search results. Contribute content to industry publications or websites, or local publications. Post regularly to social media in a way that reflects well on you, such as to note your own accomplishments, congratulate your friends and colleagues on their successes, or share valuable content.

And--if you haven't already--consider creating your own website and/or starting your own blog. If the domain for either is (or .me) it should come up quite high in a search on your name. And that's content you completely control.


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