When you first hear about a fellow academic or receive an email from a person you do not know, what do you do? How do you try to find out basic information about such a person? There is a good chance that you do an online search. Then, you likely click on one of the top results returned by the search engine. You look for information that will give you details about the person’s background, interests, education, papers, conference presentations, or at minimum their affiliation and the focus of their work.
This approach is likely increasingly common among fellow academics. When members of a department with a position opening informally pass around the names of potential candidates – yes, informal conversations about prospective applicants happen in the hallways of departments posting jobs – they may well use this method to find material they can share about up-and-coming scholars of interest. Were someone to do a search on your name online, what would they find? Would they find a helpful page with material that would convey why you are a desirable candidate?
Or would they be left browsing LinkedIn profiles of people who share your name? Would they be confused by the nonacademic information linked to your name that may or may not be desirable information to future employers? In the end, would they be left to their own devices to summarize your accomplishments in their effort to convince their colleagues that you are worthy of attention as a viable candidate? The point of this article is to make the case that everybody in this scenario is better off if there is a website out there clearly about you showcasing your achievements and credentials (although this piece of advice does assume that you have relevant achievements to showcase).
Have you searched on your name online? If not then you should do so immediately and get in the habit of doing so every few months. While some discussions put a negative twist on so-called vanity searches, in this day and age, it is crucial to have a sense of what shows up when one queries your name. When you do such searches, be sure to try different services (Google, Bing) and do so while being logged out of any related accounts (e.g., Gmail). The reason is that search engines like Google personalize their results based on information they infer about the searcher. Accordingly, what a search engine shows you when you query your name may not be the same results list that someone from another geographical location with a different search and browsing history will see. To that end, it is also helpful if you try the search on someone else’s machine (consider a trip to a library). For a neutral system that does not personalize results at all, give Duckduckgo a try.
If the content that comes up in the top results – the upper half of the first page of results – is not material about you or is not content you control then you should start taking a more active role in managing your online presence, and in particular, in creating a website dedicated to your academic work. If your institution provides such a service (more common for faculty than graduate students) then make sure your content on that page is up to date. The challenge of institutional pages is that faculty rarely have direct control over the content that is on them and they cannot always be updated seamlessly and in a timely manner. So even if your university has a page up about you, you may consider creating your own site so that you can update it with some regularity and control what is on it more directly. Of course, not everybody has the technical know-how to create a site. Some services out there can help with this, from Wordpress to About.me, helping you populate the site with content without having to know how to code Web pages.
The pages that come up first when searching for our names give plenty of information for those interested in our professional work and identities. Eszter maintains eszter.com, which prominently displays information about recent updates, upcoming talks, a brief bio as well as links to an updated C.V., her research, and press coverage. Brayden relies on his university's website to signal his areas of expertise, share his C.V., showcase his research and teaching, point to press clippings, and provide contact information. Subsequent search engine results on our names link to our social media presence and blog writing as well as other content covering our areas of interest.
If you do not have a website but one of the top results to a search on your name is a link to one of your accounts on a social network site such as Twitter or LinkedIn then that may be sufficient, but you need to make sure that the content on the site is the type that would be helpful to potential employers and grant makers. Twitter is unlikely to be able to provide the kind of detailed information about your research that would be helpful to potential employers, although it may signal to a reader your intellectual interests and activities. If it is one of the top links in response to a search on your name, then make sure that it links to a professional page with a copy of your C.V. (services such as Academia.edu and Scribd offer free options for hosting such files to which you can link elsewhere). (In a future piece focusing specifically on appropriate and helpful uses of social media, we will say more on what type of Twitter and other social network site uses may be best from a career perspective.)
If one of the top results is a page you control then you are in good shape, but you still cannot rest on your laurels. The Web is a dynamic space with content changing all the time. The first result today may not be the first result tomorrow so even if your content is in a prominent spot at the moment, you need to continue staying active in updating your online presence to make sure it stays that way. After all, other people – not just in academe, but in the world at large – may share your name and may be putting out content online that would compete with yours for a top search result spot.
In addition to updating your account’s content, you can also help the page gain or hold onto a prominent spot on the list by posting links to it elsewhere on the Web. For example, Twitter accounts have short bios that leave room for a link. Post the address of your site there. LinkedIn and Facebook also allow for this and even more customizable services like Tumblr and blogging software (e.g., Wordpress, Blogger) offer various opportunities to connect your name with your website address. While search engines’ algorithms are proprietary and tightly sealed industry secrets so we cannot know what exactly plays into how they rank sites, traditionally link text associated with an address helps in attracting attention.
Where your page shows up among search results is not simply about what you do online, it is also about how unique your name may be as compared to a combination of popular first and last names. In the latter case, consider using your middle initial or middle name regularly (both online and off) to help people find you without too much effort. If use of your middle name in queries is a more realistic way to get your content on the top of search results then make sure your middle name is prominent on your C.V. and publications so that people are prompted to use that when looking to learn about you.
As with other things – like figuring out how to present material on your C.V. – take a look at other academics’ sites to get a sense of what type of presentation will be most helpful to your readers. When you look for other scholars on the Web, what material are you seeking? Presumably you would like to get a sense of their research, their training, their teaching (e.g., looking for example syllabuses). Construct your site with similar ideas in mind. The academic C.V. is one of the quickest ways to convey information about yourself. Make sure it or a link to it is prominently displayed on your site so that visitors do not have to hunt for it.
As you consider what you say about yourself on your site, think of it as more than a calling card – it is your chance to shape people’s evaluations of your work. What do you want people to remember about you? What do you hope to be known for? That information should be visible and prominent on your page. More than just serving as a place to store your contact information, your website is a representation of who you are as a scholar. Be thoughtful as you decide how to describe your research interests because people who are relatively unfamiliar with your work will form their initial impressions about you and what makes you interesting based on what they read. Simple things like keywords not only shape who visits your site (e.g., Google searches for certain keywords may bring people to your page) but also how they classify your work and evaluate its quality. As you display information about yourself, remember that you are not just reporting who you are, you are framing your work so that others can understand you and figure out why you are a scholar worthy of attention and respect. And do include some contact information for those who want to follow up with you. After all, if someone wants to invite you to give a talk you do not want to make it difficult for them.
Eszter Hargittai and Brayden King are writing a book, forthcoming from Princeton University Press, on managing your online reputation.