Let's admit it: The only appearance that matters is how you come off online. If you aren't obsessed with your digital visage, you should be. In a click, anyone on the planet can get revealing information about you. Do you want the first thing people see to be that photo of you doing the limbo (or worse) at a party? Read on and take control of your personal online brand before it's too late.
1. Assess and Sanitize
Now there's a reason to spend hours Googling yourself. Even better, go deep with 123people.com, which digs up harder-to-find info, and see exactly what your online presence looks like. Then vet every online account you've used—Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—for dodgy photos, incriminating info, and inappropriate comments. If necessary, delete posts and close down questionable accounts. If there's a lot to bury, hire a pro: Reputation.com or Elixir Interactive can scrub your sordid past so an HR person (or a prospective date) won't find it.
2. Build a Home Base
A simple (but topical) blog will showcase your interests and experience—and blogs rank high in Google's algorithms. But if the daily commitment is too much of a burden, try a personal website that shows your best side. A custom site built by an expert (browse dribbble.com for designers) will cost a few grand—for a cheaper alternative, Wix and Webs offer slick templates.
3. Get Really Social
Social networking is key, but not if you're posting only witty memes and photos from last night's drinking session. Create a professionally flavored Facebook profile, followed by Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts. When updating those sites from now on, think of the old adage about e-mail and assume that your priest, grandmother, and boss will see them. Finally, edit your Google Profile, which is a public bio that comes up as one of the top search results for your name.
4. Boost Your SEO
Incriminating search results are a nightmare, but not being searchable at all is only slightly less damaging. Creating public sites and profiles may help, but if you're still the invisible man, then you need help with your search-engine optimization, or SEO. BrandYourself is a savvy, free service (with optional premium features) that guides you through an SEO massage: ID'ing search results that are or aren't you, creating a more distinct profile, and linking everything together.
5. Prune. Weed. Repeat.
Maintaining your new brand will be either an addiction or a chore. HootSuite helps by aggregating all your online profiles on one screen. Or you can outsource the work by hiring a personal branding consultant like Reach Communications to take the lead (one-on-one coaching starts at $6,000) or enlisting a "social media manager" like ghostwriter Annie Colbert, who works with celebs and athletes as well as regular Joes.