Wednesday, September 14, 2011

When Employers Google Your Name, Does It Hurt Your Job Search?

I bet you’ve heard this job search advice: “Google your name so you know what recruiters and employers are finding out about you.” Seems reasonable enough, until you take into account that Google offers up personalized Google search results to each of its users.

This means the results Google delivers to Mr. Employer will probably not be the same results Google delivers when you Google yourself. And that could hurt your job search!

Why Personalized Google Search Results Differ From User to User

When Google selects and prioritizes search results, it takes into account several things in addition to the words (or name) the user types into his search window. Things such as:
  • Keywords commonly used by the user who’s conducting the search
  • The user's geographic location
  • Information from the user’s Google profile
  • Other tidbits of info Google has gathered throughout the user's online history
All this data influences the search results Google presents on the user's screen. And it influences the order in which the results are presented.

An Extreme Example of How Personalized Search Results Could Hurt Your Job Search

Let's say Mr. Employer uses the same computer for business and pleasure. Over the years his Google searches have included topics in his healthcare profession as well as his personal interests in golf, fly fishing, dating, travel, politics, reading, and other topics.

Your resume comes across Mr. Employer's desk as a potential job candidate. Before calling you for an interview, he decides to Google your name by simply entering your first and last names into his Google search window.

Now remember, when choosing what results to deliver to Mr. Employer, Google takes into account your name (which Mr. Employer entered) and Mr. Employer's online profile and his history of Google searches, including ones about his personal interests – that’s what makes it a personalized Google search.

Here are the search results Mr. Employer found, in this order:

1. A link to a blog post where you wrote a comment about all the time you spent on the golf course in Hawaii when you were supposed to be attending a professional healthcare conference. (Google “guesses” that Mr. Employer is interested in this because of his history of looking up golf trivia and his profession in healthcare.)

2. A link to your Facebook wall where a friend talks about your date with a golfing friend's friend who got drunk at a country club you went to, complete with a photo of her in your lap. (Google ranked this high on Mr. Employer's search results page because the post got so much traffic on Facebook and because the event happened at a golfing venue.)

3. A nasty tweet you sent about a political candidate who happens to be a proponent of Mr. Employer’s political views. (Google noticed this tweet because it got retweeted so many times, using the popular twitter hashtag #politics.)

4. A link to a YouTube video page that has a comment you wrote denouncing the healthcare products manufactured by Mr. Employer’s company. (Google easily drew the connection between the name of Mr. Employer’s company and your name in that comment.)

5. A link to Mr. Employer’s local real estate forum where someone with your name asked what would happen if he didn’t pay the overdue property taxes on his home. (It is not you or your town, but Google put your name together with Mr. Employer’s location and decided it was relevant to his personalized search.)

6. A link to a newspaper article reporting someone else with your name who was arrested for drunk driving in the town where Mr. Employer lives. (Again, Google connected the dots between your name and Mr. Employer’s home town, and assumed it deserved a spot on page one of his search results.)

7. A link to yesterday’s newspaper article about the murder of a police officer in your town with your comment offering sympathy to the family at the very bottom of an extremely sensational webpage with a long list of similar comments. (Google got it right that you wrote the comment. Unfortunately, because the comment is so recent, Google ranked it higher than your professional links on Mr. Employer’s results list.)

8. A link to a report in an important legal journal about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which one of the parties who was involved in an embezzlement case in your state has exactly the same name that you have. (Google probably selected this link due to Mr. Employer’s regular activity on political and media websites, in addition to your name appearing in the article.)

9. A link to a news piece about someone much younger than you who has your name and has just won a full four-year scholarship to the local college because he’s an outstanding student. (Again, Google has coupled your name with Mr. Employer’s interest in media websites to deliver an article that is not relevant to you or your job search.)

10. A link to Amazon for a book about fly fishing (Mr. Employer’s favorite sport), authored by someone other than yourself who has the exact same name as you.

11. A link to a directory of many people who share your name and live in places where Mr. Employer has traveled. None of the people listed are you.

12. A link to your LinkedIn profile! But unfortunately there are only 11 search results on page one of Mr. Employer’s results page so your LinkedIn profile has been bumped to page two, which Mr. Employer doesn’t bother to look at.

See how much Mr. Employer’s information influences the search results he gets from Google? Likewise, if another employer searches your name, his results will be determined by the information Google has on him. And when you Google your name, your results will also be different.

The bad news about personalized Google search:
  • You don’t have full control over what an employer will find about you (or someone he may think is you).
  • You can never be certain what his personalized search results are, because you can’t see his screen when he Googles your name.
The good news:
You’re not totally helpless! Follow Susan P. Joyce's 4 Ways to Manage Your Online Reputation, so that hopefully:
  • Mr. Employer won’t find anything that would damage your job search.
  • You can influence Google to place your best, most professional stuff near the top of page one – things like your LinkedIn profile, your website address, that professional article you wrote, and other relevant professional activities.
By the way, it’s not a bad thing for Mr. Employer to find your wholesome personal activities, especially because, thanks to personalized Google results, it’s likely that you and he share those activities. However, you really want your prized professional links to rank higher on Mr. Employer’s search results – the top three items on page one would be ideal – so they’re sure to be spotted.

The Long and the Short of It
Despite all your efforts, Google may still deliver undesirable results when an employer Googles you. But you can reduce your risk by never typing or uploading anything, anywhere online that you wouldn’t want an employer to see.

More Online Job Search Advice:
Online Reputation Management for Job Seekers
Don't Fail This Google Test. Get Your Resume and LinkedIn Profile in Sync
What Email Address Should I Use for My Resume and Job Search?


Trevor Elwell said...

Though your example was a little extreme, it does bring up a good point- Google serves different information to different people based on what they've searched in the past. Though, the results are never as drastic as the example that you mentioned, it is important to consider.

Where I see people get in the most trouble is when those who are managing their online reputation believe that they control their top ten search results only to find that when someone else searches for their name they have different results show up. This usually happens because they forgot to log out of their own Google account (which is more likely to serve them info about themselves) to see what most people will see. This, opposed to the situation above, is the more likely problem coming from personalized Google results.

Rebecca said...

I would recommend setting up a google alert to your account, so that way you know exactly what google is profiling under your name!

Susan Ireland said...

Thanks for making that point. Although, even if you log out of your Google account, your personalized search results will still be different than the results of another person, simply because each will be influenced by the user's search history.

Thanks for your comment,

Susan Ireland said...

Excellent idea, Rebecca, to set up a google alert for your name. Google alert sends you an email each time your name is published online (at least when Google finds it).

Lisa said...

I have a common name, and when I Google myself, I come up with other people with the same name. How do employers know if they are researching the right person or someone else with the same name?

Susan Ireland said...

Hello Lisa,
Create a strong online presence through LinkedIn, blogs, and perhaps your own website (using your name for the web address, if it's still available). When you write something online, for example as a comment in a LinkedIn discussion or as a blog post on your website, start your writing with a sentence that incorporates one or two keywords that identifies you professionally. That way, when the employer sees that first sentence in his search results, he will be attracted to the link in that result, which points to YOU.

Also, be sure you have strong Google and LinkedIn profiles that begin with good professional keywords.