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Who knows you on the Internet? Everyone!

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Google search
Doing a Google search on your own name might bring up events in your life that you would rather forget.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

I don't Facebook, I don't MySpace, and I don't understand these people who post online videos of themselves singing off-key Karaoke, or blurt out their latest crush on their blogs. I'm afraid of the Web. If I had my way, Google would know nothing about me.

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But it's not working out that way. If you search my name, you'll find the time from my latest 10K race. It wasn't fast. There's also a college survey that nobody warned me could end up online; it reveals that I spent my undergrad Saturday nights at the library and now go to bed at 10 p.m. I hate that my Internet self is slow and lame.

So I started asking people if there was anything I could do about a bad Web image, and somebody told me about Terry Steindel.

"Oh, they called me the most retarded real estate agent in the world," Terry explains.

Terry lives my nightmare: One day he was just doing his job, selling homes, and a blogger made fun of a flyer he'd stuffed in mailboxes around town.

"They just slammed it," he remembers. "And they said: Would you buy a piece of real estate from this agent?"

Terry Steindel
Terry Steindel is a real estate agent in Ramsey, Minn. who found his Google search results to be embarrassing.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

So there it sat -- a nasty blog entry. When Terry searched his name, it was right at the top of Google returns. Terry didn't grow up Myspacing; he wasn't Internet savvy. He didn't know what to do.

Then one day on the radio, he heard about a company that helps manage your online reputation, experts who get paid to make you look better on the Web.

"I can at least fight back," he says. "Or not even fight back, but at least say my piece and tell people who I am."

It actually started to help his online image, and Terry thought maybe someone could help me, too. So I found David Erickson. He's a Web marketing guru in St. Paul; he helps companies, and people, look good online.

Before I walked in the door, he'd already Googled me: "I know the grants you got. I know where you've traveled. I know where you've studied. I know what jobs you've had. I know where you live."

David didn't mention my bedtime or 10K speed. Maybe they're like a zit on my forehead; I think everybody's staring at it, but nobody's even noticing. So I pointed them out.

Just go down a couple of links, I said. Look: There's a survey I filled out once for a college reunion. And I don't like what it says.

"What are you doing now that you never thought you would?" David read. "Going to bed at 10 p.m."

David laughed. But I'd really like to get rid of that.

"Yeah, you can try and do that," he consented. "It's probably not going to happen."

Some companies will help you scrub your Web image -- pay them, and they'll convince Google or webmasters to take things down. But sometimes the people who run the pages just won't do it. Anyway, David says you can't ever be sure something is gone forever.

"The way browsers work, when you go to a Web page, they download all the elements of that Web page in particular, they download them to your computer," he says. "So there could conceivably be thousands or millions of computers on which that document is stored."

The Wayback Machine
The Wayback Machine archives Web pages.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Even more disturbing, there's something called the Wayback Machine, where you can find Web sites the way they looked 10 years ago. So, David says I have to stop thinking about erasing embarrassing pages and concentrate on burying them. He has a whole slew of tricks.

"Buy your own domain name," he says. "Dot.com yourself, put up a Web page about you, open up accounts in Myspace, Facebook, Flickr. Put your name as the account name, as the user name, so those things show up in search results."

So basically, if you don't like the picture Google paints of you now, paint a bigger one, a mural. Flood the Internet with your own stuff. Then, get people to link to your material to push it to the top of search engine lists. David says only around 20% of people click to page two of Google -- do everything you can to get the bad stuff off page one.

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"You have to," David says. "It's a new world, folks."

I get it. But I kind of hate the idea. Splashing my life all over the Internet feels sort of tacky. It seems like it would give me less, not more, control. The more I put out there, the more can be used against me. Isn't there any way people can just stay off the Internet?

"Well," David says. "Not exist. If that's not an option for you, basically just keep your name offline in any content you produce."

How hard is it to do that?

"It's practically impossible," he says.

I could quit my job, lock my door, and watch bad reruns all day. Or I could grit my teeth and log into the messy, unpredictable future.

That's what Terry the real estate agent did. He is half-a-century old, and he has entered the digital world. He built himself a Web site and started a blog of his own. Now if you Google him, his own pages come up first.

So I asked Terry, "What do you think I should do?"

"Take control," he said. "I feel a lot better knowing I have somewhere to go to say the things I feel need to be said."

I don't know if I can do it. But this week, I did buy my domain name -- just in case.