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Establish And Maintain Your Online Identity

If you’re not actively building your identity and establishing a presence online, you’re letting search engines cobble together information, good or bad, and write your public story. You need to establish and maintain a healthy online identity.

Photo a composite of images by nksz and bezzaro.

Your online identity — or lack thereof — becomes more prominent by the day. People rely more and more on search results to help build a picture of you and you want the picture to be a good one. You want search engine queries to direct to you and your accomplishments, not your virtual doppelgangers. If you have a name as common as my own, that could mean a sculptor, photographer, felon, aspiring actor, swimming champion, high school point guard or any other number of people who share your name.

If you’ve been thinking about whipping your online identity into shape, but don’t quite know how to start or what to cover, the following guide will help you establish yourself and make sure all search engine roads lead to you, and not that other John Smith — the one in cell block 4D.

Buy a Domain Name

It was the gold standard of establishing your online identity when the internet was young, and it remains so today. You need a personal domain name. Services come and go, taking profiles and postings along with them, but a private domain gives you a permanent address that can outlive the hosts and services you point it at. If you bought www.YourName.com in 1998, it may have pointed at 14 web hosts, one Blogger account and now points to your Twitter profile, but it still represents you from every place you’ve used that URL. Blog posts, business cards, long forgotten comments left on articles read years ago — all direct people back to you. Photo by sundstrom.

Registering a domain will usually run you around $US10 a year, less if you register for multiple years. You can find all sorts of deals throughout the year, as companies give away domains for $US3 or other low prices, offer a free domain with a year of cheap web hosting, or other such deals — unless you’re already signing up for a web host and getting a deal, it’s hardly worth waiting around to save a few bucks.

Domain registrars are a hotly debated topic. I’ve never had any problems with any of the multiple domain registering services I’ve used over the years, so I can’t add anything to that debate. I can say that registering a domain is ridiculously simple, and if you’ve got 10 minutes and a credit card you can — and should — do it right now. Visit one of the registrars below to register your domain name. Deals, as noted above, vary widely over the course of the year. Make sure to check all of them to see what the best deal is for your needs.

While it’s ideal to snag YourName.com, don’t overlook the .net, .org, and other less-used domains. You can frequently bundle them together when you’re registering, grabbing multiple variations like YourName.net/.org/.me and more, for a much lower price than you would if you registered them individually.

Direct Your Domain Somewhere

A domain is worthless if it doesn’t go somewhere. Don’t misunderstand — you don’t need a highly trafficked blog to satisfy the requirements of your domain “going somewhere”, it just needs to point to something that represents you. If you don’t have to the time or desire to maintain a personal blog, point it at an established social network profile, or better yet, a simple personal portal. Photo by svilen001.

Ideally your domain will point at something you control, like a personal information portal, a personal blog, or something similarly small-scale. If your requirements are modest, and you just want a place to bring together the various fragments of your online personality, an excellent choice is Flavors.me.

Flavors.me offers simple personal portal creation, highlighting your other web locations. It’s entirely drag and drop, and extremely easy to customise. If you’re not looking to keep up an active site and blog on your own, it’s a great compromise between having no site at all and having a building one from scratch. You can link in all the different pieces of your online identity to one place — Twitter account, social network profiles, photos sharing websites, etc — and spend no time maintaining it.

While we’re big fans of the polished and easy to use interface of Flavors.me, you might also want to check out similar services offered by Chi.mp, UnHub and Card.ly. All make it easy to build a simple personal portal to park your domain at and give people who visit your domain something to look at and a way to connect with you. Photo by Sara Wayland.

If you want more out of your personal domain than personal portal splash pages like Flavors.me can offer, check out our feature on how to host your domain with free apps. There you’ll learn how to set up a personal blog or direct your domain towards an existing blog service.

The important thing is that you have a domain — a permanent marker for your online presence — and that it points to something, whether that something is a simple splash page that directs people towards your other activities online, or a full-service blog and information portal you invest lots of time into. Your virtual address needs to provide search engines, prospective employers, and snoopy friends with all the right text and relevant links to propagate your good name.

Link, Link and Link Some More

Search engines are — to grossly simplify the matter — just giant indexes. Indexes only index what they find and they give the most weight to the things that appear frequently. Grabbing a personal domain and pointing it at your personal portal is a great start but personal branding is not a situation where “if you build it, they will come”, it’s a situation where “if you build it and consistently link, they will come”. Photo by gerard79.

The more a link to a website appears on other websites, the more weight search engines will give it. If no link exists anywhere on the web to www.YourName.com, it’s practically invisible. On the other hand if you’ve included links to your URL in your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn profile, attached to your profiles on link sharing sites like Reddit and Digg, and included it in your commentor profile on popular sites like Lifehacker and Gizmodo, then the crawlers of major engines like Google and Bing will come across it again and again cementing the link between Your Name and YourName.com.

This might sound like work but it’s not. You’re already on the web and you’re busily interacting with it. You’re at Lifehacker, you’re reading this article, and you’re probably leaving comments — we have an awesome and active community! What’s stopping you from using your real name and your website address in your profile here? Think of all the places you visit, leave comments, share photos and otherwise participate in online communities from Flickr to Reddit to comments on your favourite blogs. All of those popular places are excellent springboards to give your online identity a history and weight with search engines.

The easiest way to build your online reputation is to attach your real name and a link to your website to the things you’re really passionate about. If you love snowboarding and post to snow boarding blogs and forums, start using your real name instead of BoardGuy9000. Join discussion forums related to your profession and hobbies — English teachers, for example, would be well served to join the popular English Companion Ning. We can’t possibly list all the different networking opportunities that exist for all professions, but we’d urge you to seek them out for yours. Not only is the networking and exposure to new ideas and material invaluable but it gets your name and web site out there. Photo by clix.

For some non-profession specific places to park your virtual identity hit up the following sites and — at minimum! — sign up and fill out a bio.

  • Facebook – Make sure to turn on search engine indexing in the privacy settings.
  • Twitter – If you’ve written Twitter off as some weird place where people talk about how much they love lamps and poop hammers, you’ll want to revisit it. If nothing else, use Twitter as a way to update the world about the things going on in the rest of your life like updates to your blog or new photo sets you post to Flickr. If you don’t want Twitter to be the first hit for your name, check out how to keep Twitter from overtaking your search results.
  • LinkedIn – Don’t neglect to search out professional contacts you already have for an instant network.
  • Flickr – Whether you use it for practical business purposes or creative personal reasons, Flickr is heavily indexed and a great way to get some instant link love.
  • Reddit/Digg: Submit and comment on articles relevant to your work, link to your own work when relevant.
  • Delicious Bookmarks/StumbleUpon/Google Bookmarks: Bookmarking sharing and discovery services are fertile ground for sharing links to your work and your personal site.

While you’ll find no shortage of blog-sharing directories, places to pimp your RSS feed to a wider audience, and other marketing tools online, getting your name and site URL in the prominent places we noted in the list above should do the trick without the hassle of making site promotion a part time job.

Do Not Go Gentle Into the Digital Night

Personal branding and identity management is an undertaking for which there are few sins. One of the minor sins is being annoying in the promotion of your site — nobody likes a link whore! — but the biggest sin, the cardinal sin, of identity management is silence. If someone looks for you online and cannot find you at all they might assume that you don’t have an online presence or that they’re looking in the wrong place. If they look for you and find evidence of you all over the web but nothing from the current presidential administration, you’re sending a big message. Photo by riesp.

What message? The message that you’re old news, you don’t keep up on what’s going on, and there has to be someone out there more interesting and relevant than you. If the only thing online that points to you are old blog posts from 2005 and a stale social networking profile you might as well be walking around with a cassette player and some floodwaters on exclaiming “We put a probe on Mars? What first black president?” The only real crime in the virtual world is to be outdated and irrelevant.

You don’t need to spend hours a day sharing links, posting to your blog or updating the world through your Twitter feed but you do need to look like you’re alive. Your online presence should not be an archaeological snapshot of the life you had in the last decade but an active window into the life you’re living now. Update your social networking profiles, indulge your interest in photography and take a few minutes a day to participate in Project 365, share links you find interesting on Twitter, connect your real life to your virtual one.

It might seem overwhelming to start managing your online identity but it’s likely not anymore “work” than the amount of energy you’re already putting — albeit less focused and organised — into your online pursuits right now. Photo by soopahtoe.

Use the following checklist, referencing the article above to refresh where you need to and you’ll be done with the basic setup in 20 minutes:

  1. Register a domain name.
  2. Point the domain at a personal portal or blog.
  3. Use your real name and a link back to your domain when you participate in online life.
  4. Stay active. Share pictures, post links, leave blog comments.
  5. Enjoy your well established online identity!

You’re already online and doing all sorts of things that could be building your “credentials”, it’s time to start doing so in a focused way that gives you the recognition you deserve.

If you have a tip, trick or experience with personal branding you want to share, sound off in the comments to help your fellow Lifehacker readers build up their online identity.