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A guide for job seekers: How to maintain professional looking social network profiles

Anyone can benefit from maintaining a professional online profile, but recent graduates and job seekers in particular face a lot of confusion about what to do with their social network profiles.

Some think their Facebook accounts should be private and therefore hidden entirely from prospective employers. Others believe the Internet has reached an "anything goes" stage where people simply need to accept that individuals have social lives that differ from their professional lives. Still others feel online profiles allow them to be seen as real, complex, and multifaceted people – much more than the person conveyed on a CV.

The aim of this article is to help you understand both the positive and negative potential of your online social networking profiles as a job candidate, and also give you tips and tricks for maximising the good and minimising the bad.

They're going to Google you!

Always assume that when you apply for a job, the prospective employer is going to do an online search for your name. They're going to Google you!

Do you know what they'll turn up?

Do an online search for your own name. Then search it again in quotes. Then try again with your city name, too. Now try it with some keyword about your desired profession, like the job title ("programmer" or "writer," for example) or field ("marketing," "human resources"). The point of this exercise is for you to learn what turns up when other people search for you online.

In all likelihood, you'll find a Facebook page, which may or may not even belong to you. But there it is. You might also find any blogs you've kept in the past, school-related websites and information, as well as other social network results from LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+.

The trick, then, is to take control of the results. As you or the person performing the search sifts through the results, they'll make instantaneous calls about whether each item is in fact a representation of you, and when the answer is yes, they'll make a second judgment call about what that result says about you.

That's why you need to take control of the results and manage what people find.

Positive and negative effects of your online presence

The negative potential effects of online social networks for job seekers is pretty clear. If potential employers see pictures of you doing shameful things, or immature and unprofessional writing that you've posted, they'll reject you on the spot. Why would anyone even bother to interview a candidate who makes such a bad first impression? Hiring is a very expensive process. No one wants to waste time considering a candidate who isn't going to work out.

On the other hand, your online presence does have the potential to show you in your best light, if you use it correctly. It gives you an opportunity to tell a more comprehensive story about who you are, what you know, and the experiences that have shaped you.

A piece of advice I often hear about CV and cover letter writing (we've got a full article on this subject here, if you're interested) is to add a few interesting facts about yourself, usually towards the bottom, on the off chance that someone on the hiring committee might find them interesting, or value them for some reason unknown to you. Indeed, they might share those things in common with you – and on some level then feel a bit of kinship with you. These interesting facts could range from hobbies to memberships and associations.

With a CV and cover letter, you have very limited space for sharing interesting tidbits about yourself beyond your core skills and experiences. But online, you have a lot of room for telling the rest of the story. If a potential employer is interested in one of your facts, he or she will continue learning about you – which is a very good thing (as long as you keep your profiles clean of any embarrassing or illegal information). Do post about your hobbies and interests, but I would recommend not writing as much about your political and religious beliefs, unless those things are applicable to your line of work.

How to control your online profiles

One of the ways you can control what people find out about you is by loading your online profiles with applicable words and images. (Note that I am not discussing how to manipulate for search engine optimisation – these tips are more about leveraging the existing results than changing which results appear).

For all the web pages you want potential employers to see, use the same profile picture. Having a consistent picture will help draw attention where you want it. Think about it from the searcher's perspective. If they see a photo on at least one website that clearly belongs to you (perhaps because you mention that in your CV), then all the other results that contain the same picture must also belong to you. And that's what you want the searcher to think. The searcher will probably pay less attention to sites that have a photo if they're not sure it's you – so give them plenty to be sure about.

Use one good, clear, professional photo on all the accounts that surface in the Google results you found earlier. These will likely include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ (or as many of those as you use). The picture should be of your head and shoulders, preferably with you smiling, and with other identifying features apparent. For example, if you wear glasses in life, wear them in the photo. If you always tie your hair back, make sure it's in a ponytail in the photo, too. Remember, you want this photo to look like you rather than be a glamour shot (unless of course your line of work is acting).

Another way to own your Google results better is to use consistent language throughout your online profiles. Frequently used words should include keywords related to your desired profession. If you want to become a video game designer, then every profile that you want employers to see (that is, all the ones where you'll use the same picture of yourself) should contain the words "video game" and "design" or "designer" near the top of the page. If you want to work in graphic design, use the words related to the skill across all your profiles: Art, artwork, design, graphic designer, and so on.

The goal is for potential employers to land on any of these pages and be able to answer this question without even thinking about it: "Is this the same Paul Ramirez who is applying for a job as a graphic designer at my company?" Yes, it is!

Some people worry that having their photo visible could result in racism, ageism, or other discrimination. I understand that perspective, but I still think that images of you or people who also have your name are going to be available online one way or the other. It's just a product of the world we live in now. It's better to have some control over the images than not.

Which online profiles do you need?

Personal web page or blog. It's not mandatory to have a personal website or blog, but it does help deliver one clear message about you quickly and efficiently to anyone looking for you online. If you're not interested in building some huge site, try something super-simple like

LinkedIn. I do recommend that all job seekers set up a LinkedIn profile. I personally have got more mileage out of that account than many other job sites, in part because I use it as a way to let my contacts know my whereabouts. Use LinkedIn to connect to all your past co-workers, bosses, colleagues, business partners, and even students or professors if you've had something of a professional relationship with them.

LinkedIn has a section where your contacts can endorse you by writing short recommendations. There's no guarantee that prospective employers will ever read the endorsements, but they are nice to have as another place where you can load keywords. If you want to bill yourself as a team player, ask people to write recommendations that specifically mention team projects. It's okay (in fact, usually preferable) for you to tell the recommending person loosely what you want him or her to say about you. Here's an example of how to do it:

Hi Kim,

I'm using LinkedIn to highlight my experiences for my job search. Would you mind writing a recommendation of me, maybe mentioning my role as lead presenter in the Business Management course project we did together? I'm applying to jobs that want to see leadership and presentation skills, so including those two points would be helpful. I'd be happy to write one for you, too! Let me know. Thanks!

Facebook. Chances are you have a Facebook account. Chances are it pops up in the results when you search for your name online. Embrace it and use it to your advantage rather than trying to obscure everything on it.

Be sure to keep your public information clean and professional. Use your one good photo as your profile image, and make sure the photo on your Timeline page is work-appropriate as well. Facebook gives you a lot of opportunities to tell the more complete story of your interests and expertise, so be sure to load up on those keywords that relate to your field of work and skills.

It's hard to control every single Facebook photo that your friends post of you, but do take some time to comb through all the most prominent information.

Twitter. Not everyone is on Twitter, but it is a wonderful place to connect with people in specific industries. My work overlaps many fields, and I use Twitter to communicate with people in several of them, including education, e-learning, social media, and mobile app development. If you do pick up a Twitter account for the first time, be sure to state a theme in your profile information, whether it's related to your professional career or a specific hobby or interest.

Google+, Flickr, and others. You probably will set up profiles on other online social networks depending on your career field. Employees in the technology sector seem to use Google+ more than anyone else, while photographers still flock to Flickr. Many professional groups and associations have websites that support profiles, so be sure to figure out which ones will be most valuable to you.

The most important thing to bear in mind with any of these social networks is you must keep them current! An abandoned profile can deliver just as negative a message as an indiscreet photo.

Are there special cases?

A former law student who wanted to break into the video game development industry once asked me for some advice (I used to specifically write about careers in that sector). The first thing I asked her was why I couldn't find anything at all about her online! She said all her law professors mandated she wipe herself from the Internet entirely.

I was flabbergasted. My advice was to do the opposite. Tell the world you are passionate about video games. Put your name out there. Use social networks to talk to other game developers.

Still, the point is, in the legal sector, things might be different. Take advice from as many people as you can about your specific industry. Ask if there are any taboos when it comes to having an online presence in that field. And be sure to talk to a wide range of people, old and young, from different ranks in the field.

Use your online social profiles to your advantage when conducting a job search. Even a little clean up and management can go a long way.