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Your own name might be a business liability

(MoneyWatch) With Google and other search engines now the primary tools for researching products and companies, most businesses are, of course, very aware and focused on the value and impact of search results. But many companies, particularly small ones, ignore or are unaware of the significant influence that "people searches" -- looking up an individual, as opposed to a business name -- can have on their customers, prospects and other business relationships.

Nearly everyone uses, or has used, a search engine like Google to find information on another person -- no real news there. People look up friends, dates, employees, celebrities and politicians, whether for research, snooping, or just curiosity. And if your name is associated with a business -- whether in the Yellow Pages, on the side of a truck or a real estate sign, or as an owner or executive in the news -- they're checking on you, too. Consider this:

Among U.S. adults who have searched someone online, nearly half have searched someone before doing business with them, and 45% have found something that made them decide NOT to do business.*

What's significant here is that people are increasingly making decisions based not only about business information, but personal information about principals and others involved with a company. And this can lead to big problems, because while there may be only one company called John Doe Electronics Repair, a Google search of "John Doe" turns up 45 million results.

Obviously most individual name hits have nothing to do with a single company, but in the quick-glance, short attention span world of endless pages of search results, it's easy to come to hasty, incorrect conclusions and consequently wrong decisions. People searching my name will find a small business owner and CBS writer -- those guys are both me, and that's the stuff I want to be seen. But they might also see another Michael Hess, who was once a fugitive in Florida, and perhaps have enough of a "hmm" moment to make them hesitant to work with my company, or hire me for a speaking engagement.

If you think this hypothetical mixup is extreme or silly, it's not. It happens every day. In fact, it's exactly how an interesting young company got started.

Pete Kistler was in every way a model student at Syracuse University, but was inexplicably rejected for one internship after another. An online search revealed that Pete Kistler also happened to be a model prisoner, and his story was showing up far more often in search results. "Good Pete"'s sterling reputation was being buried online by a convicted drug dealer of the same name and approximate age.

Kistler knew there were many firms offering "reputation management" -- basically an iteration of search engine management -- services, claiming to be able to clean up anyone's online image. Some were effective, others not, but the reputable ones typically cost thousands of dollars, often on a recurring maintenance basis, targeted at corporate customers. Hiring a company with any real chance of success was out of Kistler's reach. He realized he wasn't alone, that other people and small businesses were in the same boat, and set out to democratize the process of improving and controlling personal search results. So Kistler, along with two co-founders, started a company called BrandYourself.

BrandYourself, which offers both free and low-cost premium services, is a sophisticated, yet elegant and user-friendly online platform with which anyone can investigate, evaluate, manage and improve his or her online image. I've tried it out, and found it to be fast, easy and even engaging. I learned a few things about my search presence (fortunately I'm in good shape), and a variety of ways in which I can use the site to manage and improve it. Clearly I'm not the only one who likes it -- BrandYourself signed up 150,000 active users in just 8 months, and is getting a lot of media and investment attention.

Whether you choose to use a service like this or not, it's more important than ever that you stay aware of your online image and reputation, and know the methods and resources available to make it the best and most accurate it can be. Being confused with someone else, or having incorrect or incomplete information about yourself online, can lead to anything from simple embarrassment to job rejection, a tarnished business reputation, or lost customers.

I asked BrandYourself CEO Patrick Ambron to give me his big picture view of the issue. He told me that around 30 percent of all Google searches are related to people, which translates to roughly one billion name-related searches each day. "And with numbers like that," Ambron says, "no company can afford to ignore the importance of individual reputations in its overall search strategy."

*Data is from a national study by Harris Interactive for BrandYourself

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