Let’s assume that you’re one of the seemingly few people who isn’t running for president in 2016. Maybe you’re just applying for a job, or going on a date.
Do you know what someone will find when he or she Googles your name? More importantly, can you do anything about controlling those search results?
If you’re really unlucky, a criminal with the same name as you might be getting mixed up with your search results. Or the problem could be less extreme, like an embarrassing or outdated personal blog that keeps showing up when you wish it would just disappear. In my case, my second Google search result is an old Twitter handle that I no longer use, and I’d like to get rid of it.
Google made news last month by allowing people to submit requests for removing search results that included revenge porn — sexually explicit material that gets posted online without permission. This is a step in the right direction, but still leaves a lot of opportunity for other messy, reputation-harming search results to appear.
This week, I started using Web-based software that’s geared toward educating average people on how to tidy up their online reps: BrandYourself. It works for free, with an option to upgrade to a Premium account for $99 a year if you want extra features and a little more control. I tried both options. For now, BrandYourself only exists as a website, not as a desktop or mobile app.
But the harsh truth is that in order to alter Google search results, you’ll need to put in a lot of time and work — maybe two hours a week using the Premium version of BrandYourself. Search results are just hard to bury, depending on how much authority they have. For example, a negative story about you in the New York Times would be significantly harder to get rid of (if at all) than a personal website that mentions your name.
You could try paying more money — BrandYourself also charges $399 a month for a Concierge service that creates new content for you, which, over time, may rank higher than your negative search results — but even then you might not get the results you want.
BrandYourself CEO Patrick Ambron admitted that one month of the Concierge service probably wouldn’t do the job to clean up a real problem online, so you could be looking at nearly $5,000 for a year of reputation-cleanup work.
To get started with the free version of BrandYourself, I followed a handful of quick steps.
I signed up for an account using my email address and a password. Connecting your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts for sign-up is also allowed, but I didn’t like the permissions that BrandYourself wanted to use with my accounts, like the ability to tweet on my behalf if I connected my Twitter account. BrandYourself’s co-founder said he plans to change these permissions in the near future so that they take fewer liberties and explain more specifically what they’re doing with your accounts.
Next, I entered my name as I wanted to find it online. Though I entered “Katie,” I got search results for “Katherine,” too.
A quick scan showed me a list of my Top 10 search results on Google, and I quickly followed instructions to label each of these as Positive, Negative or Not Me.
Sorry this isn’t more salacious, but I didn’t have a lot of negative or unwanted results to clean up.
I labeled all but one of these results as Positive, but I’m guessing that some people would find more than a few results that fit into the Negative category. I labeled my old Twitter account search result page as Not Me, which hid it from view on BrandYourself’s My Links page.
But this gave me the impression that I had magically erased that unwanted website, which was deceptive. A quick check on Google showed that my old Twitter account page still ranked second in search results. To see how your actual Google search results page looks from within BrandYourself, you’ll need to open a Report Card tab, then click on a link that says “Show your search results” — not exactly obvious.
It was frustrating that, even with the paid version, I couldn’t get the website for my old Twitter handle to disappear (it ranks second in a search for my name). Just imagining that as some kind of reputation-damaging website gave me a glimpse at how futile the whole process of trying to clean up an online reputation would be.
BrandYourself tries to encourage a lot of DIY solutions for managing one’s online reputation, and it gives you points toward a good virtual report card whenever you take these steps. Examples include creating a BrandYourself profile page (surprise, surprise), adding your bio to it, and building 10 profiles or websites to bolster your reputation.
But though BrandYourself can walk you through the process of what they can do to optimize more positive links, Google is still the only source that can guarantee the way search results appear.
On July 6, BrandYourself will launch a free Online Reputation Scanner, which looks through your Top 100 Google results for anything that might damage your reputation or expose private information. This feature already works within the website, but next week it will work on its own landing page — even for people who haven’t created accounts on the BrandYourself.com account.
There are, of course, alternatives to BrandYourself. But services like Reputation.com are laser-focused on businesses, not average people. And many boutique firms offer to clean up your online profile, but they charge significantly more than $99 a year — or even more than BrandYourself’s $399-a-month Concierge service.
If your online profile is squeaky clean, congratulations: You won’t have to worry about what will happen when a future boss Googles your name. But if you find search results you don’t like, only Google can control whether or not those results appear. This is why the recent news about Google taking down revenge porn is such a huge step.
Meanwhile, the Concierge version of BrandYourself may help, but there are no guarantees. If you’re looking for some basic education on how to manage search results on your own, BrandYourself helps — but it can’t work miracles.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.