Be yourself online

Do you avoid putting personal information online because you can’t control how it’s viewed or used once you’ve hit “post”?

Your old Myspace profile might prove difficult to explain in a job interview, but recent evidence suggests it could actually stop you getting that far. Worse: as your name is almost certainly not unique, a case of mistaken identity could easily cause someone else’s website to have the same effect!

It’s never been easier to upload your private details to the web, so it’s no surprise that the phenomenon of googling is becoming correspondingly widespread. In 2005, 43 percent of people who answered a dating-service survey said they type their date’s name into a search engine before they go out. Previous polls have revealed that 23% of US adults admit to searching online for information about someone with whom they have a work relationship.

To retain their privacy, people have traditionally hidden behind pseudonymous nicknames on the Internet, but this solution is far from ideal and is certainly not reliable. Besides, the rise and rise of blogging and social networking sites is pushing people to use their real details for both business and pleasure online.

So given that a gradual reduction in online privacy seems inevitable, how can you manage the issue of search engine misunderstandings in the Web2.0 age?

This is the problem that a new service called ClaimID has set out to address. Just out of beta and now open for public registration, the site allows you to collate on a profile page links that are either about you, by you, or both. This page is then presented to visitors arriving from search engines, together with your comments and other information about the sites you’ve “claimed”. In this way, you can add commentry and context to your online information, and even to articles about you that were posted by others.

Interestingly, you can also post comments about links that do not relate to you. This helps to distinguish between namesakes and avoid cases of mistaken identity.

ClaimID provides some reassurance that, however much information you have “out there”, you can keep control of how it’s being interpreted. Turning the tables, it also helps to ensure you’re getting the real story when a search for someone in whom you’re interested turns up a hit on the site!

The service already supports emerging standards such as MicroID, hcards and OpenID, and further improvements to these facilities are expected as the site matures. Greater scope for personalisation would be a nice touch though: profile page layouts and formatting are currently fixed. However it can’t be long before customisation options are provided; possibly even the ability to integrate pages into your existing website or blog.

ClaimID fills a clear and growing need for online identity management, and goes some way towards redressing the balance of power between you and the search engines. If you’d like to shake off your net handle and claim back your online identity, you could do worse than starting here.