It's not what other people think of you that matters. It's what they can find out about you on the web that will affect your ability to get a job or promotion, rent or buy a house, be accepted into the school of your choice, or find the love of your life.

Increasingly, your personal reputation is at the mercy of search engines, blogs, and social networks, none of which themselves have a sterling reputation for accuracy.

Identity theft, libel, defamation, mistaken identity, and youthful indiscretions captured forever, these are just some of the things that can come back to bite you. Fortunately there are five ways to fight back. And it all starts with discovering the depth and breadth of your personal net footprint.

NEXT PAGE: Google yourself > >

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It's not what other people think of you that matters. It's what they can find out about you on the web that will affect your ability to get a job or promotion, rent or buy a house, be accepted into the school of your choice, or find the love of your life.

Google yourself

It's not enough to have the respect and admiration of your family and your peers; you need Google juice as well. Because if someone Googles your name and finds nasty things written about you, your credibility could be destroyed in an instant.

The postings could be the rantings of a disgruntled former employee or an angry ex-spouse, or of someone posing as you, or even someone with the same name, in any case, you're toast.

"Google is no longer just a search engine; it's a reputation engine," says Chris Dellarocas, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies online reputations. The first step in taming this beast is to find out what's out there by Googling all variants of your name, your phone number, and your address.

If you've put stuff on your own sites that you don't want Google to find, you can ask the search engine to delete it from its results. If someone else posted this material, though, Google won't remove it. You'll have to ask the site owner to take it down or hire someone to do it for you (more on this later).

Latest Google news - click here

Comb the web

Even the mighty Google can't catch everything. For example, many of Facebook's 60 million profiles are inaccessible to search engines. So even if you haven't created a page on Facebook, MySpace or one of the gazillion other social networks, someone else might have set up a spoof page to make you look bad.

Start by looking at so-called "people search" engines. Sites like Pipl, Spock, Wink and ZoomInfo scrape information from other websites (like social networks) and slap it together into personal profiles. It's not uncommon for such sites to mix information about different people with the same name and present them as a single person. That's not so good if you've got the same name as, say, a porn star or a disgraced former MP.

Spock goes a step beyond; its bot software selectively pulls individual words from your sites and adds them as "tags" to your profile. Taken out of context, some tags can be extremely damaging. For example Spock once tagged political blogger John Aravosis as a "pedophile" because he'd written about Congressman Mark Foley. In many cases you can contact the sites and have information removed or corrected. Spock will email you if your profile has been changed, but only if you register with the site.

There are also hundreds of online address books that contain information on you, some of which surely won't be accurate. For $5 a month (£2.50), Reputation Defender offers a service called MyPrivacy that locates your listings in some of the major internet white pages and lets you remove your data.

And don't forget Wikipedia. You may have a false or defamatory entry in the world's most popular online encyclopedia and never know it. In the most infamous case, retired journalist John Siegenthaler publicly outed the encyclopedia for a false entry that implied he played a role in the Kennedy assassinations. If you've got a Wiki page and want to keep it, you'll need to keep an eye out for erroneous edits.

NEXT PAGE: Opting out of junkmail and conducting your own background check will help you identify if you've got a bad reputation online.

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The internet can be your biggest enemy when it comes to reputation. Identity theft, libel, defamation, mistaken identity, and youthful indiscretions can all find themselves on to the web and affect your chances of a job or promotion, purchasing a house or even finding the love of your life.

We find out just how you can protect your reputation on the internet.

Opt out early and often

By reducing the amount of junkmail you receive, you make yourself a smaller target for identity thieves and others who can mess with your reputation. (One of identity thieves' favourite tricks is to sign up for a change of address in your name, so they can re-route pre-approved credit card offers to your "new address".)

Though there's almost no way of getting your junk quotient down to zero, taking your name off marketing lists will nuke 50 to 75 percent of it. The easiest way? Register with the Mail Preference Service (MPS). This free service deletes your name from 95 percent of the UK's direct mailing lists, which are the source of much of today’s junk mail.

Do your own background check

There is a treasure trove of information about you freely available to anyone who knows how to look for it. Do you own property? Have you ever been late with your tax payments? Arrested? Divorced? In most states, that information is in the public record, and much of it is available online for a fee.

When an employer does a background check on you, this is the kind of stuff that turns up, so at the very least you want to make sure the information is accurate.

Order a free credit check from either Experian or Equifax. This information shows up when you try to open a new credit card, buy a mobile phone or rent an apartment. Unfortunately, credit reports are notoriously inaccurate. A 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that one in four reports contains an error serious enough to deny you credit or employment. So you'll want to review and correct them as needed.

NEXT PAGE: Defend your reputation > >

Get the latest internet news, reviews, tips and tricks from Broadband Advisor

It's not what other people think of you that matters. It's what they can find out about you on the web that will affect your ability to get a job or promotion, rent or buy a house, be accepted into the school of your choice, or find the love of your life.

Defend your reputation

When it comes to online reputations, people are usually their own worst enemies. Those drunken photos may have been a hoot at university, but they're not so funny when you're prepping for the big job interview. Especially as 77 percent of recruiters use search engines to screen prospective job candidates, reports a survey by ExecuNet.

You can delete your Flickr account or your MySpace page, but once this stuff is on the web, you have no control over what happens to it. If you find nasty stuff floating around that's not under your control, you may have to hire someone to take care of it for you.

Some services, like DefendMyName, can cost around £500 a month; but there are others that are bit more reasonable. For £5 a month, Reputation Defender's MyReputation service will scour the net to find out what people are saying about you.

If the service uncovers anything you can't abide, you can pay Reputation Defender £15 to have it removed. Reputation Defender starts by sending a letter politely asking the site to remove it. If the site refuses, the requests become increasingly less polite. But sometimes this process backfires. When Reputation Defender tried to erase news of one client's arrest from Consumerist.com in January 2007, it spurred a spitting match in the blogosphere that only made matters worse.

And if the service can't get the bad stuff taken down, it will try to bury it by posting positive items about you and making sure the good stuff shows up higher in Google searches (though that service costs extra). Overall, MyReputation has had good success in removing items from video and photo sharing sites, social networks, and online forums, but only moderate success with blogs, says co-founder Owen Tripp.

"Most clients never ask us to remove anything, they just use us as a professional monitoring service for their good names. They think of our services as the new credit report."

Get the latest internet news, reviews, tips and tricks from Broadband Advisor