This year, nearly 1.7 million students will graduate from college. Many of them are engaged in a new ritual of the digital age: cleaning up and polishing their online profiles. The demand is so great an entire industry has sprung up to help.
According to numerous surveys, the vast majority of hiring managers routinely Google potential job candidates. And what they see on that first page of search results matters — a lot. Just ask Pete Kistler, who was a college junior when he started applying to a bunch of computer software firms, looking for a summer job.
"My GPA was 3.9. I had a lot of relevant internship experience and I wanted to go into software," Kistler says. "By a bunch, I mean dozens and dozens. But I'm not hearing back from anyone."
Kistler says he was puzzled until a friend gave him a call. He worked at one of the companies Kistler had applied to. "And [he] said, 'You won't believe this, but but the reason that you didn't get called back was because they Googled you and they found another kid with your name that's a drug dealer and they thought that you were him,' " Kistler recounts.
Kistler says he still remembers the exact moment he Googled himself. "You know, my stomach dropped," he says. "Everyone who Googles me probably thinks I'm this kid — I'm this drug dealer. And there are all these Google images of a car crash and a DUI."
Pushing The 'Bad Stuff' Down The Search Page
I became interested in the business of cleaning up online reputations precisely because of Kistler's story. After his scare, he and a college friend, Patrick Ambron, founded their own business to help people in his situation. And his story is so compelling that The Associated Press, USA Today, Forbes, CBS and NBC have all reported on the two Pete Kistlers — the computer programmer and the drug dealer.
But before he became a minor media sensation, Kistler says, he was scared, angry and confused. "At that point, I didn't really know what to do because I didn't know how to fix my own search results in Google." He says he was convinced bad search results were costing him jobs.
This was in 2008. There were reputation-management companies at the time that could help Kistler out, but the cost was steep. "Up until then, the business was catering basically only to rich people," says Ambron, now CEO of BrandYourself.com, the company he founded with Kistler.
Ambron says he and Kistler realized that personal Google results now matter for everyone, but for young people like themselves, the tools they needed to fix them were out of reach. Many services charged upwards of $1,000 per year. The biggest players in this industry spend millions annually to advertise heavily. Reputation.com, an underwriter for NPR, is one such company.
But Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, finds most of these ads unconvincing. "They usually make me kind of laugh," he says. "Because the promises tend to sound like, we're going to sort all this stuff out for you, and the reality is that nobody can really guarantee to do that."
If there is bad information out there about you online, Sullivan says, you usually can't simply erase it from the Internet. No one can. Instead, he says, these services work generally the same way: They flood the Internet with new, more positive stories and content about you — stories that link to each other and are written in ways that make them pop to the top of search results. "You try to get the good stuff to come into the top results, which will push down the bad stuff," Sullivan explains.
It's called search engine optimization, or SEO. Kistler didn't have the cash to pay for it while he was in college. So he and Ambron tackled the problem together — and realized that maybe there was a business in this for them.
"What we wanted to do was create a product that allowed anybody to do the same thing we were doing, but do it themselves for free," Ambron says.
They landed some venture funding for BrandYourself and opened an office in New York City. They now offer more affordable paid services, too, and a couple of colleges, including Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, offer the service to undergrads.
But Ambron acknowledges they can't make bad stories disappear — only "push unwanted things down with more positive relevant stuff."
An Oft-Repeated, But Tangled, Online Story
The story of Peter Kistler the computer programmer being mistaken for Peter Kistler the drug dealer has become ubiquitous online. BrandYourself even has a photo — a mug shot — on its website of this supposed drug dealer Pete Kistler.
The thing is, I can't find a record of this guy anywhere. I've looked through the public records I could access and LexisNexis; I even called in NPR's librarians. We just can't find any reference to a Pete Kistler who was dealing drugs. The photo on BrandYourself's website is actually of a man named Adam Laham.
When we asked BrandYourself if it had any records, the company sent us a link to a story about a rape from 1988. We asked what state the alleged drug dealer was arrested in, but it didn't respond.
Still, this tale of the two Pete Kistlers has been repeated so many times online that it's become the Internet's approximation of truth.
And that, after all, is how these online reputation management businesses work. You take the story about yourself that you want to tell, then repeat and repeat it — until that's the only story about you anyone sees.