If a potential client were to plug my name into a search engine to get the scoop on the real me, he or she would find:
articles I've written for online magazines, plus my own Web site; and
a really, really (and I mean really) smutty joke called "Blowing Chunks" that I posted to a moderated humor e-mail list in 1995.
The good news is, the Internet lets you keep in contact with your customers and potential customers quickly, easily and cheaply. The bad news, according to John R. Levine, co-author of The Internet for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide), is that everything you've ever posted, sent or created online is probably still out there somewhere, waiting for the chance to blindside you and your business.
What will your current and prospective customers find when they plug your name or business name into a search engine? If you're afraid to find out, read on to learn how to cultivate an invincible Internet image.
Remember, you can't take it back. If you post an expletive-laced flame and later come to regret it, you can have it removed from the Deja News archives; unfortunately, however, "Deja News is merely the most popular of a bazillion news archives," says Levine. Since there's no opportunity for damage control, you need to concentrate on prevention (avoiding online faux pas in the first place) and cover-up (doing enough good stuff online that all bad information gets pushed to the back of search results).
Keep it professional. Remind your employees that when they send an e-mail from a company account, "it's just as much a correspondence from the company as if they'd written it on letterhead," says Levine.
Don't feed the trolls. If you've ever had a dissatisfied customer, you may someday happen upon a site called "thiscompanysucks.com." What can you do to soften this blow? Like the bully in grammar school, ignore it, and it will go away. If you try to make the perpetrator take the site down, "47 mirror copies will go up," says Levine.
Participate in industry forums. Aside from keeping you up-to-date on your industry, posting to forums will help you impress customers and create a paper trail of your good deeds in the industry. Do this enough, and the giant mistake you posted will fall off search engines' radar.
Hit your target. You may be amazed by the news reports of people hitting the wrong button and sending a confidential e-mail to an entire address book of employees and customers. "Sometimes there's an alias called 'all' or 'everyone' that's for everyone in the entire address book," explains Levine. "If someone types the subject line in the 'To' field and the subject happens to contain the word that is the alias for everyone, the e-mail goes out to everyone on the list."
Don't flame. If someone says something online that makes you sizzle, go ahead and write a note full of cuss words. Then put it aside for a few days to cool down. After all, as much as you want to get back at that jerk, do you really want customers to get a glimpse of your dark side?
Keep your guard up. Heed this advice even when participating in private groups or sending personal e-mails. You never know where your writings will turn up-as some of us learned the hard way.
Linda Formichelli has written for Redbook, Writer's Digest and Nation's Business. She also writes marketing columns for HomeOfficeMag.com. You can reach Linda firstname.lastname@example.org.