When people hear about you for the first time, they might Google you to see who you are. If they don't like what they see, they may not interview you for that dream job, or give you the chance to pitch your business idea.
Luckily, fixing your online reputation is much simpler than most imagine. The average person is not going to read pages and pages of Google results. In my experience, most people are content to look only at the first page of results, and they will only click on a link if they see a problem.
To fix this first page of results, follow these five simple steps.
1. Google yourself regularly
Google yourself and see what comes up. You need to check the results every month or so, partly because new information appears online all the time, and partly because Google frequently changes its algorithm to stop search engine manipulators from gaming the system.
Normally you only need to worry about the first page of results, but I suggest you go a few pages deeper the first time you do this. Make sure there is no content so negative that you can't afford to have it even on page 20.
2. Remove or hide negative content you control
If there is any content you control that you don't want others to see—like your personal Facebook page—then you should either delete it or change the privacy settings so no one can find it.
Be especially careful with your Facebook profile, because private pages can suddenly become public when Facebook changes its privacy settings. If someone has tagged you in a party photo, remove your tag from that photo.
3. Push down unwanted content by creating new, good content
Push down all results that are either irrelevant or negative by creating new content that Google will recognize as high ranking. Google values content that appear on important sites. While an article about you on NYTimes.com will rank highly, it is rather hard to get.
Luckily, there are many high-ranking sites that allow you to create profiles, like social networking sites. Create a profile for yourself with your real name on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Zerply, Viadeo and others. These will appear at the top of your Google results.
4. Ask for negative content to be removed
If there is negative content on sites you don't control and you are not satisfied with pushing it down to page four, then ask the owner of the content to remove it.
If a friend owns the page, a polite request is usually enough. If that won't work, contact the site owners. You can find through them through "Who Is."
5. Protect your brand by registering domains and IDs
You can protect your personal brand for the future by registering your real name as the ID on new sites in case they become important later. If you ask Twitter today for the account @MarcoRossi it is probably taken, but you can claim any name when a site first launches.
For the same reason, it is also a good idea to spend a few dollars to register yourname.com. Google ranks content on this domain more highly, so it is a good choice for a personal site. For more about this, check out "How joining networking sites boosts your reputation."
These are the five basic techniques that will clean up and improve the online reputation of most people, brands, companies and organizations. There will be some cases that are more complicated-if your name is the same as someone famous-and in these cases you may need professional help.
Andrew Hennigan is a consultant, speaker and writer on professional communication topics. He writes Andrew Hennigan's Communications Blog, where a version of this article originally ran.