Several people have told me lately that they don't care about their career identity online. "I should be able to do what I want," they say, or, "My life shouldn't be judged by employers based on what they see on the Web."
I say this: Brand or be branded. You can either make sure people perceive you in a way that boosts your credibility or you can ignore your online presence and be seen as, A) nonexistent and unimportant or B) someone who shouldn't be contacted for a job -- ever.
Let me explain.
A young woman reached out to me recently, supposedly "desperate" about her job search. Having graduated from college last spring and yet to land an interview, she claimed to have tried everything. I looked at her résumé. It had some things that could be improved, but her academic achievements were solid and in a specialized field. Then I checked her cover letter. It was pretty standard, which then made me wonder if her online identity was the issue.
I decided to complete an Internet search on her -- just as four out of five hiring managers do today. I put in her name and the school she graduated from. What popped up in the results shed some light. The first item in the results was her Facebook picture. It was a blurry photo of her in a sweatshirt and her eyes were closed. OK, so it was nothing terrible, but it also wasn't a powerful first impression.
And besides, what followed was much worse:
You see, her Facebook photo was the only thing about her that popped up. There was nothing related to school, nothing related to volunteering, nothing related to her field of study ... absolutely nothing. In fact, the next 10 entries were for someone with the same name but different middle initial who currently writes an open and direct blog about a controversial, inappropriate-for-the-workplace subject.
Now, is it frustrating to think she might be getting discriminated against because of an online search? Of course! This recent grad doesn't have a lot of experience, which means her career identity is being branded as sub-par (and maybe even being misinterpreted) because of a lack of solid, professional online content. Yet that doesn't mean a person with this problem should sit in the sandbox and pound her fists. Any person, at any age, at any time in her career can build a strong online career identity.
The reality is that you only need five to six good things to come up in a search so the top fold (the uppermost portion of the computer screen that shows the top search results) is filled with positive items about you. Why? Because people rarely, if ever, bother to scroll down or click on the next page of a search. They usually assume what is in the top fold is the most relevant.
So, how do you create and/or improve your online career identity?
Step 1: Identify your brand's keywords
Do a search on yourself and see what comes up. You may find that someone with your name has dominated the top fold. From there, identify what keywords you can use to differentiate yourself from this person. Should you be using your full name? Your middle initial? Your affiliation with an organization or a type of work? Figure out how you want people to find you so you can build your brand around these keywords.
Step 2: Become a blog reader and commenter
Begin reading career-related blog content for 10 minutes each day. This will help you stay up-to-date and in-the-know. Then, start posting thoughtful, well-written, professional comments on these blogs to enhance your credibility as a knowledgeable member of your industry or profession. Take two extra minutes to post a comment on five blogs each week and you'll be on your way.
Step 3: Ask to guest post and become an expert
Once you've got commenting down, it's time to consider writing a guest blog post on a subject related to your career. After you've become a regular commenter on a particular site and think you relate to its readership, contact the site's administrators and ask if they would accept a guest post from you. Give them an overview of the topic you would write about. If they are interested, you can write the whole article, submit it, and -- voila -- you are a published author on the Net.
Step 4: Get social
Facebook isn't the only social networking tool that will come up in a search on your name. LinkedIn, Twitter and others all offer you a way to build a strong top fold.
I am a particular fan of Twitter. Twittering is micro-blogging. Better still, it's like instant messaging for professionals. It is an easy, fast way to connect with hundreds of like-minded people in a short time. You can be connected to hundreds of people in a matter of weeks. Better still, you can tweet (post short, 140 character comments), which a hiring manager can read if he does a search on your Twitter account name. It's like inviting an employer to see what you are like to converse with -- a great way to brand yourself.
In summary: Why risk having a lack of any career identity or having a bad online presence just because you didn't take control of the situation? Yes, getting your top fold to look good takes a little effort, but it can provide an incredible return on your investment.
J.T. O'Donnell is a nationally syndicated career expert and author of "CAREEREALISM: The Smart Approach to a Satisfying Career." She can be found at www.CAREEREALISM.com, her career advice site for professionals ages 18-40, which aims provide readers with tools and resources to navigate the new rules to career development.
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