The Virtual Identity of College Students

New York University college student Chris Duncan (who is interning with us) writes:

Nearly everybody has a professional presence online–even college students who don’t realize that their personal virtual presence is also often their professional personal presence. It is increasingly important to protect these representations of ourselves.

Without realizing it, these footprints that we create (or are created for us) are indexed, linked, cited, and sometimes even copied. It is available, searchable, and most scary, perpetual. An incriminating quote or picture can be saved and reproduced on a site that is out of your control.

The “online you” must be accurate. It’s not only about avoiding the bad, but also creating a positive effect. Being googled can be a frightening occurrence unless you have prepared appropriately. Even if you’re currently a college student, and see yourself as below the radar, you still have to be aware that your potential employers can and are researching you online.

Today, the search term “Chris Duncan” brings up mostly a BMX biker and a geologist as results. The reason for that is that I have yet to build up much “google juice” for my own name. I am at a crossroads in my online presence: to be or not to be anonymous. If you’re thinking about publishing anything questionable or controversial, it may be in your best interest to use a pseudonym. If you choose to put your name on the line, then you’ll want to leverage your thoughts and publications for your own benefit.

If you ask search engine optimization experts or a Google engineer how to get better search results, you’ll get two different answers. The seach engine optimizer will give you a bag of tricks; the Google engineer will tell you that the algorithms are constantly changing and that there are no real ways to force your results higher. Common sense points us to a healthy medium of both of these opinions. You can’t usually trick Google (although WordPress succeeded for a while), but you can make Google read your site more efficiently.

Google is trying to find out what your site is about whenever it is spidered. It does this by taking a number of different aspects of your site, determining their relative importance, and then putting you on the list for a certain number of keywords. The ways it determines relevance are pretty much common sense. Factors that affect relevancy of keywords are: being close to the top of the page (some argue that left sidebar navigation may affect this), being bold or underlined, being in a larger font or a header, and frequency. Keeping these in mind, you can give Google a nudge in the right direction. After optimizing your own page for the spider to find your keywords, you also want to increase your ranking for those words. This is accomplished through your linking habits. Linking to and being linked by sites with content similar to your own is one of the most important ranking factors for Google.

Let’s look at some examples. Ken Wee is an alumni employee of Nitron Advisors who maintains a blog on his NYU web space, and is interning this summer for a major investment bank. Ken does an exceptional job of expressing himself succinctly in his blog posts. In addition to the posts themselves, he has shown his technological abilities. On his site, he has set up both a forum and a guestbook. He also maximizes the benefits from his blog by posting all of his writing that he has done in school plus his bio and resume. The site may not have been created with the direct goal of finding a job, but Ken has definitely created a valuable piece of online real estate. For a relatively common name like “Ken Wee”, he must have gained strong search engine presence to come up as the third result on the first page of Google for a search on his name. Overall, Ken has done more than enough to leverage his abilities and name well into the future.

There is at least one concern with his blog. The most recent post reveals a sensitive subject in the business world: political affiliation. However, that same post shows us that Ken prefers to be pro-active when faced with dissonance in his life. It is also not necessarily bad that he has revealed his political affiliation, since it was to illustrate a point rather than argue on his own behalf. The only other negative aspect of his web space is that it hasn’t been updated recently, although this can probably be attributed to the fact that it was an experiment or hobby. It is clear that these are personal musings rather than his “professional presence.”

Now, we go on to the much more entertaining part… the bad stuff. We’ve seen all the ways, Ken used his space to help himself, but people often do just the opposite. Brown is a top university, but it’s somewhat counterintuitive to use your web space (which contains your name) for shenanigans. Perhaps he’s looking for a job in the brewing industry, but I think it’s safe to conclude that posting pictures of your multiple-story beer funnel is a poor idea. The potential damage is somewhat minimal since a search for that student’s name on Google doesn’t point you to that space. However, people have given credit to that very same student for photos of different occasions. This could lead a person to surf over to the personal space where the incriminating pictures are stored.

College students really like to document the funneling of beer. We have another bright mind with a taste for booze. We also get a candid shot of him and his friend “wearing” only guitars. The proliferation of digital cameras and free college server space results in these semi-permanent displays of debauchery. I can’t blame them for it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t regret it in the future.

Continuing with our theme of beer funnels and digital cameras, we have another impressive creation. I know these kids are proud of themselves, but it’s not always worth showing that off to the world. Even worse is that he made everybody try it out and took pictures of it. At least he didn’t include their names. A google search for his name brings this site up on the first page of results. By now, who knows how many admirers have saved pictures of his creation or even posted them on their own webspace.

Another person has managed to include a photo of himself drinking two beers simultaneously, along with the beer funnel. At least he shows that he doesn’t discriminate; he drinks every single type of booze there is. 40s, liquor, flavored drinks, mixed drinks… he has them all. At least his name isn’t in the web address or posted on the top of all of the pages.

Our main point: think twice before you publish anything. Do as much as you can to use your online presence in a positive manner and don’t use your own name if you are posting something questionable.