When someone searches your name on the internet, what is the first thing that comes up? Your LinkedIn profile? Maybe your Twitter or Instagram. Increasingly in the modern world, your digital profile forms the first impression you make to others.
In my case, the top entry is the parliament web page for a Scottish Conservative politician with whom I share a name. What that means for my reputation is another question.
Either way, in our connected and social media-driven world, our digital profiles are becoming ever more important. The first thing a job recruiter, future employer, potential business partner or even a romantic interest is likely to do before meeting you is look you up online.
Your digital profile can be useful for making connections, but it also comes with pitfalls. Biographies on a business website can fall out-of-date once the person moves on. Social media accounts can be hacked, and passwords can be cracked. Someone could swipe your name and image from one site to create a false profile on another.
And even if your account is secure, genuine, and accurate, the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal reminded everyone about the risks of companies misusing our data.
From this list of concerns, you may conclude that it’s safer to have no digital profile at all. But this may not be a viable option either, points out Andrew Wessels, chief executive and founder of The Marque, a digital reputation management service.
“If I research someone today and there’s nothing online, I may think that they’ve paid someone to push everything down because they’ve got something to hide,” he warns.
Wessels, a former professional cricketer from South Africa and investment manager with JP Morgan, says that attitudes around the internet have changed significantly in recent years. People are now taking their online profiles far more seriously.
“Three years ago, it was quite cool if you Googled someone and there was nothing about them online, but I think in today’s day and age, with the prevalence of social media and the fact that information can be disseminated across the world in seconds, it is now quite important that you control how you are presented online.”
And these heightened concerns are creating new business opportunities.
For example, The Marque creates and manages digital profiles for high-level executives, which are kept accurate with the client’s background, latest business interests, and their mentions in the press. It’s not a social media network, so users aren’t on it to make connections, but to create a “de facto” source of information about themselves. Business people pay for their profile, and sign off any changes – so, unlike a Wikipedia profile, it can’t be edited by strangers online.
“If you Google some people, you’ll find seven different profiles saying seven different things. With us, if you do find a profile on The Marque, it’s owned by the principal, so they’ve signed off on it – it’s not us just creating it – and it’s up-to-date and correct.”
Wessels came up with the idea for The Marque while researching successful business people. He found one executive working with several different companies, but information about what he was doing was spread across multiple sites, and his Wikipedia page was full of incorrect information.
“I just thought, surely there should be somewhere on the web that, if you are in a portfolio career and have multiple interests, you should have a home on the web that you control.”
Since launching in 2015, there are now more than 200 profiles on The Marque. Notable clients include Sir Charles Dunstone (founder of Carphone Warehouse), as well as Peter Orszag (vice chairman of asset manager Lazard and a former adviser to US President Barack Obama).
The Marque might be aimed at the top-end of the business world (the service costs £1,000 a year), but is clearly capitalising on a market gap. People want a place where they can present their business achievements, without revealing too much personal data.
Of course, if you can’t afford a premium service like this, there are sites you can use to control your online image – but these have their own issues, especially for high-flying business leaders.
Some executives may have been advised to make a Twitter account in order to have a social media presence, but often they only tweet once and their account soon looks out-of-date.
LinkedIn can be problematic, too. Users can receive unsolicited messages – think of 2015, when barrister Charlotte Proudman got an inappropriate and flirtatious message from a senior lawyer – or simply fail to keep their profile updated and relevant.
“If clients do have LinkedIn profiles, typically they have added only one role and one connection, and haven’t bothered doing anything else, so it’s not really a complete overview of what they do,” adds Wessels.
So what else can you do to protect yourself? Two-factor verification can secure your accounts, and privacy settings can control what the public sees and what personal data gets collected.
Sites like LinkedIn and Twitter still serve a purpose, but need to be kept up-to-date and have regular content. If there is embarrassing or negative content about you online, search engine optimisation experts can push things down the search rankings.
If all else fails, just change your name and start from scratch. Maybe Luke Graham? I could use the hits.