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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 Need to send or receive an email without using your real address? Here are some great services that let you do just that. 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

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