It was only 15 years ago when the best you could do to find a person online was look for him on ICQ and hope to find his (or her) name. If you managed to do that, you were actually nowhere nearer to knowing anything about this person, except for the fact he has an ICQ account. If you were very brave, you might have requested to add that person to your contacts, just to see what would happen.
It was only 20 years ago when the very best you could do to find out more about someone was to open a phone book and find an address or a phone number, if these weren’t unlisted. It really wasn’t so long ago when our lives were relatively private, without us having to make sure they’re so.
This has changed completely with the advent of search engines and social networks, and today you can rest assured that anyone who wants to know anything about you has already typed your name in Google. But what did they find when they did that? Did they actually find information about you? Was it information you really wanted them to have? And who are the people who might be searching for your name on Google? All this and more, on the next episode of… well, just read on.
Who Is Googling You & Why?
Potential employers: Looking for a job? Or maybe you’re trying to get into a specific school program? Your name is fair game to the people who are considering you, who might try to find whether or not you are who you say you are. This kind of searcher might look for embarrassing bits you’ve done your best to forget, evidence that you’ve really worked where you said you’ve worked, and will definitely be on the lookout for news items featuring you robbing a bank.
Potential employees: Hiring? You’re still not exempt from the Google treatment. Those who consider working for you could search for your company’s name, and for your own name as well, trying to find out what kind of employer you are. Seems far fetched? Rest assured that if you’ve been exceedingly unfair to a worker in that past, that worker has written about it somewhere, and it’s not going to be that hard to find. A potential employee may also Google you to make sure you really are who you say you are, in case it’s a long-distance kind of job.
Curious friends, family, exes, and snoops: This is the broadest category of people who might be Googling you, and includes current friends, old friends, people you’ve just met, ex-partners, ex-teachers, ex-employers, your close family, your distant family, family you never knew you had, your friends’ or partner’s parents, and pretty much anyone who’s ever had anything to do with you. What are they looking for? This can range from simple curiosity over what they might find on the first page of your Google results to finding out where you work, where you live, how old you are, what religion you practice, and making sure you’re not a scary sleazebag, not a criminal, and not anything else they don’t approve of.
Marketers, political bodies, etc.: You might be wondering how marketers or political bodies know things about you and get in touch with you. It’s not rocket science. A simple Google search can reveal basic information they can make use of to appeal their case to you much better. When someone wants to sell you something, be it a product, a service, or a vote for the right party, having some background information is always a huge help.
Complete strangers: Yes, this can happen too. In this category we find people who happened to see your name online or elsewhere and are curious to find out more, and also people who might have malicious intentions such as robbing your house, or worse.
What They Might Find
The list of what these Googlers might find is endless, and it very much depends on how common your name is, and on your online activity. To make things easier, I’ll try to divide potential results into several categories.
Someone else with the same name: If you don’t have a unique name, this is the most common occurrence on Google results. No matter who you are, if you have a common name, chances are there’s someone more famous than you with the exact same name. In these cases, you may encounter all the results listed below, only these might have nothing to do with you. This is nice when your name double is a successful football player or science professor, and less fortunate if it’s a porn star or or suicide bomber.
Let’s say your name is unique enough, or you’ve done enough to actually appear as yourself on your Google results. What can you expect people to find?
Social network profiles: This is the most obvious one, and can include your profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, and any other network you’re active or used to be active on. As long as you made sure not to share publicly what shouldn’t be shared, you should be good on that front. Do keep in mind, though, that a potential employer or a partner’s parent might not like seeing any part of your nightlife, no matter how innocent you think it is.
Fake social network profiles: This is a weird one, and is different from real profiles that come from people who just happen to have the same name. You may never encounter this if your name is common, but looking for a unique name like my own I found a Facebook profile bearing my name, with a “Content Providers” cover photo, and not much in way of any profile content.
Things you’ve written online: If you’ve written blog posts, research papers, newspaper articles for big or small papers, or even a comment on someone else’s work, these can and probably will appear when searching your name on Google. No problems here, as long as you’re proud of these. If the last thing you’ve written is a 7 year-old blog post, you might want to at least read it over again, just to be on the safe side.
Things others have written online: Your name can be a part of things you haven’t written yourself, and these may still pop up on Google when searching for your name. Did a friend mention you in a paper’s acknowledgment? Was your name referred to on an article or blog post? These may definitely come up, so hopefully, you were only mentioned as the good guy.
Your pictures: Ah, the most fun and most random part of Google search — image search! When it comes to image search, everything’s possible, and unless you’re truly famous, you’re going to have some weird things popping up on an image search. What can you expect to find here? Start with your real pictures uploaded by you, and real pictures of you uploaded by others. Continue with pictures that are part of things you’ve written online (yes, including screenshots!), pictures you’ve pinned on Pinterest or added on a different social network, pictures of your friends, and figures from papers you have something to do with. Now we can venture into pictures that are related to only part of your name, or, if your name if common, pictures of complete strangers.
While this whole eclectic collection will appear on any image search, Google’s algorithm does try to put the most relevant ones first. This is how, when searching for a friend of mine, I found a photo mashup she created with her mother’s face in her own head as the first result, and not one genuine picture of her. Good thing I already know what she looks like.
Accounts on websites you can’t remember opening: Remember the account you opened on <random website>? No? Google does. A Google search might yield profiles you’ve actually opened yourself, and haven’t used since. Hopefully, these are going to be empty, without too much embarrassing content you can’t remember putting there.
Profiles and search results on aggregators: These are all sorts of website that most often than not make their living from appearing on your Google results, convincing you to start using them for real, as opposed to “using them” inadvertently. Looking at my own first two pages of results, I found my “profiles” and “search results” on no less than four of these: Longreads, Favstar, twtrland, and ZoomInfo.
Weird genealogy websites: For some reason, your name, relatives’ names, and even pictures somehow make their way onto these family-tracking websites no matter who you are. These may appear on the first page of results or deeper than that, but it’s surprising how common they are. I managed to find such a website bearing not only my picture and name, but my sister, parents, and other relatives. Obviously, someone related to the family uploaded these at some point, but no one ever asked for my permission to do it.
What Can You Do?
This is only a small part of what people might find when Googling your name. If you’re really unlucky, your results may be even more colorful than any mentioned above. The best way to know for sure is to head over to Google.com and perform the search yourself. Remember that searching for yourself on your browser might not yield the same results as it would for others performing the exact same search. To get a better idea of what people might see, try using a private browsing window or DuckDuckGo.
If you don’t like what you see, you can try to improve the results with services such as BrandYourself, which help you get the links that matter to you into those search results.
And remember, don’t ever use your real name on anything you don’t want traced back to you. We’re all entitled to whatever interests we might have, but as soon as you use your real name, it may pop up on Google next time your ex looks up your name.
What happens when you search for your name on Google? Did you ever have someone Google your name and find something embarrassing? Share your experiences in the comments!