google-self
The other day, I read a story at Fast Company titled Why You Should Google Yourself And Not Feel Guilty About It. I agreed with the reasoning of the author, Lindsay Lavine (@lindsaylavine), but was slightly puzzled by the “guilty” part. The headline was underscored by the opening sentence, “Admit it. You’ve Googled yourself, and probably felt guilty about it afterwards.”

Do people really feel guilt from self-Googling? Perhaps they do, as these kinds of searches have been called “vanity” searches, implying they are equivalent to stopping to admire yourself whenever you pass a mirror.

I’m willing to go a bit farther than the Fast Company headline. Actually, a lot farther. I think if you don’t Google yourself on a regular basis, you’re crazy.

Unless you are a hermit or a member of a cloistered sect, at some point you’ll be considered for a new job. Or you’ll try to make a sale. Or strike a business deal. Maybe you’ll make a date for coffee. Or, you’ll engage in one of a thousand other activities that will trigger someone to check you out on Google.

In fact, you may be completely unaware you’re being checked out. Recruiters don’t place job ads and wait for resumes to roll in these days. They proactively identify candidates with tools like LinkedIn and, of course, Google. Customers, too, may check you out before you even know they are interested in doing business.

The Psychology of Online Reputation

You might assume that whatever your Google results show, you’ll correct any deficiencies and clarify ambiguities when you talk in person or by phone. There are two problems with this – one practical, and the other psychological.

The practical problem is simple. If your personal search results don’t paint the best possible picture, you will be passed over in favor of candidates who appear more suitable. You’ll never get to the phone call or meeting phase.

But, even if you’ve got that meeting set up, it will be too late to change that first impression built from online research. The problem is due, in part, to confirmation bias.

We humans are all subject to confirmation bias – once we have an opinion on a topic, we tend to reject information that conflicts with that opinion. At the same time, we see any supportive data as confirmation that we were right. This is one reason why political discourse rarely changes minds – even when it would be clear to a neutral observer that the candidate we support is a crook, we focus on exculpatory statements while dismissing evidence of wrongdoing as politically-motivated fabrication.

So, when the person you are meeting with has checked you out online, you’ll be subject to confirmation bias. If you’ve been pre-categorized as “too technical” or as a pushy salesperson, whatever you do and say will feed that stereotype. Sure, it’s possible to overcome a rocky start, but even the most talented individuals can’t always pull it off.

The Ross Perot Lesson

Ross Perot was a brilliant business leader who became an independent presidential candidate. He built a multi-billion dollar consulting firm, EDS, which was acquired by General Motors. His devotion to his employees was legendary – once, he hired a team of commandos to rescue employees imprisoned in Iran after the U.S. government proved ineffective in securing their release. Physically, however, Perot was far from impressive. He was short, had Dumbo-like ears, and spoke with a shrill, scratchy twang.

In Priming by Order, I describe testing done by pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz. His firm was testing Perot’s appeal by showing people a short biographical film, testimonials to his character, and then a speech by Perot himself. Perot’s appeal tested very well, until the people running the actual testing made an error.

For one set of subjects, they mixed up the tapes. The subjects saw the speech first, then the bio and testimonials. Those subjects had a far lower opinion of Perot than the others, despite having viewed the exact same content.

In Perot’s case, the bio and testimonials predisposed the viewers to think he was an impressive, principled person, and they overlooked his physical shortcomings and listened to his message. The group that saw the speech first never overcame that negative first impression.

The point of this story is that if potential employers, customers, or partners Google you before you meet or give them information favorable to you (like your resume, testimonials, past projects, etc.), the opinion they form may be irreversible.

Yesterday, I reviewed Andy Beal’s Repped: 30 Days to a Better Online Reputation. That book is a good starting point to begin your reputation management process. And yes, Andy not only tells you to Google yourself, he tells you how to do it. And, of course, how to work on fixing any shortcomings you find.

Another good read is Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age by Gini Dietrich. Its focus is broader than Repped, but has plenty of suggestions on how to improve your Google image. Watch for an upcoming review of that book as well as a Brainfluence Podcast episode in which I talk to Gini about her approach to marketing communications.

Turn Confirmation Bias into a Plus

We think of confirmation bias as a negative, but it can be a positive, too. When voters formed a good first impression of Ross Perot from his biography and testimonials, they overlooked the shortcomings in his personal presentation.

If you can create a positive first impression from the first page or two of Google results, the people you meet with later may forgive you a small misstep or two.

So, forget guilt. Google yourself, and give yourself a pat on the back!

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