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Recently I was invited for an evening smoke at an upscale, private cigar lounge, and the owner told me with pride how adverse he is to anything digital. He has a flip phone. No email, no social, no frills, no nonsense. Can’t even find him online, he says. Just the flip phone. You can call him or send basic texts if you happen to know his number. The business seems to be doing more than okay just on personal referrals, why should he bother?

But I looked for his business online and there is an obsolete website, an abandoned Facebook page with about 100 fans – the last post from 2012, some good and bad Yelp reviews and found several articles about them. Took me about ten minutes to see a much different perspective. If I’d read these reviews and been looking for a cigar shop on my own, I probably wouldn’t have gone inside. In fact, a couple of the Yelp reviews say the shop has closed down and moved, which I know isn’t true.

Tl;dr: A cigar shop owner that is doing just fine today on word of mouth referrals won’t maintain much long-term credibility if he doesn’t ever Google himself.

In time, if he doesn’t keep track of what others are saying about him, he will lose all control of his company’s narrative. He probably hasn’t ever heard of Yelp, and definitely hasn’t ever heard of apps like Where to Smoke. If you know that people are complaining in reviews you can either start treating customers differently and address the issues, or start encouraging your happier customers to write better reviews of their own. Perceptions matter, and I can pull a pretty decent audit of anyone and any company within 30 minutes just with their name, Google search and some screenshots.

1.   Seriously, How Do I Google Myself?

Open an incognito window (I’m on the Chrome browser, though on Safari it will say “new private window”) then go to Google.com

By doing your search in private or incognito mode you’ll avoid seeing personalized searches based on your cookies, log in, and so forth. Your IP address will still affect local search results if your company is a neighborhood pizza shop, but you should still do your searching in incognito mode. If you’re feeling crazy you can check other search engines like Bing or DuckDuckGo while you’re browsing privately.

Screenshot the results and save them in a folder or email them to yourself for posterity. It’s good to track this progress over time, as it all takes time. You can also track your rankings over time with services like RankScanner.

If you haven’t already, you should log in to Google and set some alerts for your name and business name so you’ll get an email when anything new is published. There are sites like BrightLocal that help you track all your reviews for as low as $5 a month. If you’re focused on your business and need help crafting keyword phrases for articles and content, you can use sites like SpyFu to track competitors and sites like HitTail to suggest keyword phrases for your own content. (* I’m not an affiliate for any of these sites.)

2.   I Prefer to Be Low Key

Many people will just say, “I’m kind of like the cigar shop owner. I prefer to keep my private life private and not be all over the Internet.” Fair enough, but if you are a public figure or business executive and there’s going to be press about you either way, it may be good to at least know what other people see when they search for you. I’m not saying you have to make your Facebook and Instagram public. This isn’t “all or nothing.”

If there’s a Wikipedia page about you and/or your company, then that will almost always be the first thing people click on to read. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone and revised whenever new press comes out that can be linked to – a perfect example for a common missed opportunity to help control your digital narrative. If you don’t have a Wiki but there is enough press online to prove you’re notable, you should create a page, with an infobox, photos and internal linking to other Wiki pages.

If you don’t proactively think about this, someone else will and who knows what their intentions will be. If you don’t believe me: I’ve made many Wikipedia pages that weren’t paying clients of mine. I just wanted to. My friends and colleagues are all at risk. Chris Denson and Robert Lawrence both have Wikis now, not because they thought they needed one or asked me to create them – but because I decided they needed Wikis, and I wrote the two above on my own volition, among others. Same thing with domain names and user handles: tell me this doesn’t apply to you, and I may go buy yourname.com just to make a point. You prefer to be low key? Maybe that isn’t entirely up to you.

3.   Steps You Can Take

Even if your goal isn’t to raise your profile, this stuff matters. See an article you don’t like when you Google yourself? It may be difficult to convince the site owner to remove the content just because you disagree with it. For instance, I had a client in 2011 ask Corduroy for help with a negative article on him from a prominent newspaper. We couldn’t actually remove the article or move it down, but with linking and sharing other relevant articles for the same keywords, we were able to move everything else around that one article up. I just Googled the same keywords today and I don’t find the article now until the third page of results. When I did find the article today, I did not click on it. If you do, you’re telling Google that the result you just clicked on was relevant for your search phrase, and you’re making that link even more powerful.

It is never too early or late to start caring about this. Until recently, I had neglected my own personal brand for some time. You don’t have to have an entire site dedicated to you. Just put in nathanpettijohn.com and you’ll get redirected to my biography on my company site. I have a fairly unique name, but Nathan Pettijohn the musician has the benefit of music and media showing up higher in search results. If I want to even compete for my own name online, I have to care enough to work at it with purpose.

I am consistently one of the top results if you search for “product placement companies”. This is not because my company does a ton of product placement, it is because I wrote one decent article about it that some people linked to and shared.

For the client I mentioned above from 2011, this was a long-term strategy that didn’t solve his problem around the negative article immediately, but did within several months and is an even more successful example now after all these years. Essentially, everything you see on the first page of results when you Google this person now was chosen and curated ahead of time with a long-term strategy. So how did we do that? As far as bumping the other positive sites and articles up, I’ve covered broad strokes on linking for search before.

Otherwise we created a search-friendly website with content and blog posts that now shows up first for his name, and made a Twitter and LinkedIn page that also show up near the top, and promoted media so photos and a YouTube video would all be on first page of results. A LinkedIn page matters, a Google+ page matters. Once again: these things are not a passing fad. Don’t use Yelp? If there’s a review on there that says your shop closed down six months ago – there’s no way I’m going to drive over to check for myself.