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what do websites know about you Have you ever googled your own name or that of someone else? About two years ago I searched the name of a friend. I was hoping to find his travel photos, but what I discovered were his criminal records. On top of Google’s first page. Devastating!

I had heard his side of the story, but to see the actual documents, including every last detail of court hearings, was a sobering experience. When I finally overcame shock, it dawned on me what it meant for him. Not only had he lost his job, his possessions, most of his friends, and part of his family, but his past wouldn’t stop haunting him. The Internet never forgets.

My friend felt I had invaded his privacy by viewing those documents. While he might be right, I think that discussing the ethics of searching people on Google is honorable, but ultimately pointless. The Internet is a tool and humans are naturally curious. The reality is that there is very little privacy online. And although you are not always in control of what information about yourself ends up on the Internet, you can bet someone will find and use it. The best you can do is to watch like a hawk what the web knows about you and influence it to the best of your abilities.

What Do Websites Know About You?

The natural first step is to search Google for your name and variations of it. Don’t stop with the first page, but see what shows up on pages two and three as well. Those results could end up on the front page quicker than you would like them to.

what do websites know about you

And don’t stop with Google, either. If you really want to know what the Internet knows about you, dig deeper and use a variety of sources. Try all the main search engines, try search results as seen in different countries, search the invisible web 10 Search Engines to Explore the Invisible Web 10 Search Engines to Explore the Invisible Web Read More , do an image search How Image Search Engines Work [MakeUseOf Explains] How Image Search Engines Work [MakeUseOf Explains] These days you don’t have to limit your search to just websites. Many other forms of content are easy to find, including images. No matter what you’re looking for, an image is (for better or... Read More , use specialized search engines 15 Websites to Find People On The Internet 15 Websites to Find People On The Internet Read More for people, social networks, or businesses, look for government records about yourself, and if you feel you must, try a paid service to squeeze out the last bit of accessible online information about yourself. Computerworld author Robert L. Mitchell wrote a revealing piece on his online self search.

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How Can You Influence Or Optimize Your Search Results?

It’s not only your own behavior that can influence your search results. More than a third of Earth’s population uses the Internet. That’s around 2,400,000,000 people. It is very likely that a few of them have your name. I share my name with at least four other people in the US and Europe. Their online activities affect my search results and vice versa.

Whether undesirable search results are your own fault or that of someone else, there are two approaches to fix them:

  1. Crowding out bad results by replacing them with good results.
  2. Removing bad results.

The crowding out technique is straightforward. Make sure your name is associated with sites that rank high on search engines and make those results highly relevant. For example create clean profiles with sites like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and fill them with the information you want people to see about you. Rinse and repeat until you are happy with the search result.

One website that can help you bury bad results is BrandYourself Optimize Google Search Results For Your Name With BrandYourself Optimize Google Search Results For Your Name With BrandYourself The Internet is an unforgiving place - it never forgets. Whatever gets posted online, whether it's a careless statement or a funny picture, it could very well backfire and hurt you in the future. It's... Read More . One of its co-founders couldn’t get an internship because he shared his name with a convicted drug dealer. His business partner was able to fix his search results and they subsequently co-founded BrandYourself, to help other people do the same.

what websites know about you

Removing bad results is considerably harder and in most cases impossible. You can delete content, contact site owners and ask them to delete it, or appeal to Google for the removal of search results. My colleague Ryan has dedicated an entire article to How To Remove False Information About Yourself On The Internet How to Remove False Information about Yourself on Internet How to Remove False Information about Yourself on Internet Read More .

Why Does The Web Know So Much About You?

To understand why all this information about you is public in the first place, let’s return to the source. Where did it come from?

In most cases you willingly gave up your privacy 3 Ways You've Sold Your Soul To The Internet 3 Ways You've Sold Your Soul To The Internet You may not have participated in a blood ritual sacrifice, and you also may not have sworn your firstborn to a warlock. However, chances are if you spend any time on Facebook, Twitter, or Google,... Read More and shared personal data yourself. Moreover, the web knows a lot more about you than is being made public. Your browsing habits Everything You Need to Know About the Browser Cache [MakeUseOf Explains] Everything You Need to Know About the Browser Cache [MakeUseOf Explains] Whenever you have an issue with a website, one of the first suggestions you will hear from IT support is "try to clear your browser cache" along with "and delete your cookies". So what is... Read More for example are largely stored on your computer, but this information potentially is accessible to websites you visit Do You Know What The Internet Knows About You? Do You Know What The Internet Knows About You? Read More . More importantly, however, Internet giants like Facebook and Google collect and store huge amounts of user data. While very little of this information is public, are you comfortable with them owning and managing your data? It’s time to look at what it is they know.

Google has two key tools that allow you to see what information is stored about you – Google Dashboard and the Activity Report. Google Dashboard summarizes all data stored with your account Google Dashboard Displays A Summary Of Your Google Services Google Dashboard Displays A Summary Of Your Google Services Read More under all of Google’s services, including AdSense data, Gmail activity, YouTube activity, and much more. Google’s Account Activity Reports offers a monthly summary of account activity across many Google products Google Launches Activity Report, Showing You What You've Been Up To [Updates] Google Launches Activity Report, Showing You What You've Been Up To [Updates] Read More . You can also download your data from Google.

what websites know about you

While Google’s data might be more sensitive, Facebook’s data is potentially more visible. The social network is notorious for violating their users’ privacy Facebook's Latest Privacy Scare: Are They Really Making Your Private Messages Public? [Weekly Facebook Tips] Facebook's Latest Privacy Scare: Are They Really Making Your Private Messages Public? [Weekly Facebook Tips] The latest scare doing the rounds is that Facebook has made public all of your private messages from the early days of Facebook. Many people are updating their statuses with horrified concern and advice on... Read More when introducing new features and making associated information visible to the public per default. Make sure your personal information isn’t accidentally public How To Hide Your Personal Information On Facebook How To Hide Your Personal Information On Facebook In the age of the Internet, privacy is a luxury and you have to constantly be on your heels to maintain it. Facebook makes it particularly hard for users to guard their personal data. Despite... Read More . That said, Facebook is responding to user concerns and they are constantly improving their privacy features Make Sure You're Secure With Facebook's New Privacy Settings - A Complete Guide Make Sure You're Secure With Facebook's New Privacy Settings - A Complete Guide Facebook also means two other things: frequent changes and privacy concerns. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Facebook, is that they’re not really concerned about what we like or our privacy. Nor should they... Read More . Like Google, Facebook allows you to download your data How To Bulk Download Your Facebook Data & What Information The Archives Contain How To Bulk Download Your Facebook Data & What Information The Archives Contain Following a European court decision, Facebook recently upgraded the feature that allows users to download an archive of their personal data. The archive option has been available since 2010 and includes photos, videos, and messages,... Read More .

what websites know about you

How Can I Stop Them From Making My Data Public?

Some of the articles linked above show you how to manually tighten up privacy settings, especially in Facebook. One tool that can help you maintain your privacy across different online services, including Google and Facebook, is PrivacyFix. Using a browser add-on, the tool can analyze your current privacy settings in Google, Facebook and other websites PrivacyFix Makes Finding Privacy Settings Simple, Optionally Blocks Tracking PrivacyFix Makes Finding Privacy Settings Simple, Optionally Blocks Tracking Take control of your privacy by quickly finding settings Facebook, Google and other companies bury deep in their labyrinth of options. PrivacyFix is an extension for Firefox and Chrome that points out settings you'll want... Read More . Following a scan, it highlights vulnerable areas, and suggests fixes.

what do websites know about you

How Can I Prevent Websites From Collecting Data?

Easy. Don’t use the Internet. Well, I see how this could be difficult. Maybe try not to share so much private data online and make it harder for websites to collect whatever you have to share. Disable cookies, browse anonymously Browse & Email Safely & Anonymously With TorBOX Browse & Email Safely & Anonymously With TorBOX Before two years ago, I never thought that I'd have a need to block my identity while I was using the Internet. Seriously, I though that anonymous use of the Internet was only for hackers,... Read More , use fake user data 3 Ways to access 'Must Sign Up to View' Sites 3 Ways to access 'Must Sign Up to View' Sites Read More , a disposable email address Need a Disposable Email Address? Try These Great Services Need a Disposable Email Address? Try These Great Services Disposable emails are not a new idea. In fact they’ve been around almost as long as email has (well, almost). In case you’ve never used one, disposable emails are fake email addresses you can give... Read More , and make sure your privacy settings are air tight and your passwords super safe. You are not only protecting your privacy, you are also defending your 9 Ways To Prevent Identity Theft By Computer Hackers 9 Ways To Prevent Identity Theft By Computer Hackers In this digital age, where almost the entire human knowledge is stored online, some of the most valuable information you possess is your own identity. The term refers to information that enables an identity thief... Read More identity 9 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft From Your Online Activities 9 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft From Your Online Activities Read More .

Conclusion

Privacy is a luxury. Not only can your privacy be invaded through data available online, you can also end up with a stolen identity and a tarnished reputation. Maintaining your privacy is tough because it is not always clear what information is collected, stored, and shared. While there are tools and services available that promise to help you stay on top of privacy settings, this is an uphill battle. Never assume you are safe, but always remain attentive, guard your personal data like the treasure they are, and double-check your own search results for leaks.

What do your search results look like? Did the web reveal any information you are worried about?

Image credits: Privacy Button via Shutterstock.com

  1. dragonmouth
    June 15, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    Companies and individuals who perform personal searches as a business use software. "Crowding out" may defeat casual, manual searches but won't defeat searchbots. If the data about you is somewhere on the 'Net, they WILL find it, no matter how deep it is buried.

  2. Manu Mathew George
    January 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Really informative article. Something to keep in mind.

  3. Ayush Mittal
    January 21, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Morover Keep Consulting With Your Friends And Ask Them To INform You IF they Find Any Private MAtter as they thinlk of you
    And You Should BE thinking In SEnse Of Cyber Geek.Think What If Cyber Professional IS Searching IF You Could Search Till Your REsidence HE MAy Search Till Your Rooms Dont Take It In Wrong SEnse

  4. Michael Alao
    January 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    One of the most succinct yet comprehensive and useful articles on web privacy I have seen.

    • Tina Sieber
      January 20, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you, Michael.

  5. AP
    January 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I knew about the safegaurd techniques but clumsy using them, but after reading your article I will try to follow them.

  6. Tina Burquest
    January 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    OMG, even my comments written on here are accessed through GOOGLE.

    • Tina Sieber
      January 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm

      Yeah, posting great comments on MakeUseOf using your real name is a good way to crowd out bad search results. ;)

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        January 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm

        You know the irony? After I start posting comments here the relevant search results of my name are buried under tons of MUO listings, including my own blog and my published articles, because of MUO's high Google ranking.
        I don't regret it, of course. If anything, I've learnt how to maintain regularly so it stays on the top:)

  7. Patrick Jackson
    January 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I try my best to avoid leaving any online footprint, I have just lied big time! :)

  8. dragonmouth
    January 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Very eye-opening article.

    One bit of advice to EVERYBODY, especially those using social networks, DO NOT SPIILL YOUR GUTS ON THE INTERNET! Provide the minimum personal information necessary to register with ANY site. No matter how secure it claims to be. ANY site can be hacked, all it takes is a little bit of time.

  9. Eric Jay Palomar
    January 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    this so helpful.

  10. Junil Maharjan
    January 16, 2013 at 9:40 am

    The web knows you better than you know yourself.

  11. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    January 16, 2013 at 5:18 am

    I've nothing to worry about mine. Did regular search to see if anything's wrong. On the other hand, I sometimes search one random friend's name just for fun, perhaps discovering his/her blog, but most of the time I get much, much more.
    One time they're very surprised when I told them a lot of things I knew about them. Fortunately, nothing is devastating/tarnishing, but more towards obscure details in their lives. In one particular case, he never actually write/publish about himself, but his ex-classmates blogged about him and their schooldays.

    • Ayush Mittal
      January 21, 2013 at 9:42 am

      You See You Are Not A Cyber Professional.But When A Cyber Professional IS On Search HE MAy Find A Lot Even IF YOu COyuld NOt Find Any So YOu Should BE Careful.Wish You Luck

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        January 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm

        Yeah, you do have a point, I suppose. Privacy is luxury once you step into the realm of internet.

    • Ayush Mittal
      January 21, 2013 at 9:48 am
  12. Rani Karana
    January 16, 2013 at 2:13 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7pYHN9iC9I

    That video just shows how scary the internet might know you and how well someone can even know you before even seeing your face.

    • Tina Sieber
      January 16, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Wow, that's an amazing video. Thank you for sharing, Rani!

    • Ayush Mittal
      January 21, 2013 at 9:40 am

      Reall Awsome Video Very Helpful Thnx For Posting It. Maybe It may HElp MAny Surely Me

  13. Aashish Kumar Shaw
    January 16, 2013 at 1:51 am

    this is really helpful

  14. Clotilde/Craftybegonia
    January 16, 2013 at 1:29 am

    It's scary! So much information floating around that a person can't control. I love tips on how to keep as much of it as possible, safe.

  15. SaapeXD MoHods
    January 16, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Well its better to use a random name / names on the internet! :D

    • Ayush Mittal
      January 21, 2013 at 9:36 am

      You Could Use Them But Be Sure Not To Use Them For Wrong Purpose Or You Could Be ARRESTED For Cyber Crime.

  16. Dana
    January 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    I have been aware of many traps on the Internet but not to the extend you've described here. I am really grateful for this article and will gladly share it! Thanks a lot!

  17. Bhupinder Dhanda
    January 15, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    I know but i don't know how to remove my info.

  18. Scott Macmillan
    January 15, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Some very valuable advice and ideas on how to improve what others will learn of you.

  19. Andrew Newey
    January 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I agree, but the simplicity of 'crowding out' unwanted results can prove to be fairly difficult sometimes.

    • Tina Sieber
      January 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      It's definitely not trivial to crowd out undesired search results. Depends on what the result is.

  20. Kyle MacDonald
    January 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Great article. Super helpful.

  21. John Kirkpatrick
    January 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Some STILL believe that future employers will never search for them - everywhere.
    All we can do is to keep showing them articles like this.
    Son, are you paying attention?

    • Tina Sieber
      January 15, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Exactly John. Employers now routinely do a search for applicants. And both employers and colleagues will definitely search current employees, either out of curiosity or because they want to dig up some dirt. It's human nature.

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        January 16, 2013 at 5:20 am

        As I mentioned in my comment, you should also look out for results made by others. Most of the times it's just innocent blog posts telling about your experiences together, but we can't close the probability someone is angry at you and purposefully writing bad things about you.

  22. Sri Vastav Reddy
    January 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    wow tina,
    u Nailed it this time,
    Awesome Post..:)

  23. Mikey Ja
    January 15, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    This is insanely helpful and should be a must-read for everyone working online. Great article!

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