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How to clean up your digital footprint

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

footprints on the sand beach

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Whenever you buy something online, visit a website, or post something on social media—or someone posts something about you—you leave behind digital breadcrumbs. This data, which includes your IP address, your usernames and passwords, and other identifying information, forms a digital trail, or footprint, that advertisers and cybercriminals can use to target you.

To protect your private information and your online reputation, you need to learn what your digital footprint says about you and what you can do to ensure it remains an asset, not an embarrassment. Here’s how.

Check your digital footprint

Run your name through a few different search engines and see what comes up. Try the common misspellings too, and be sure to search for pictures and videos as well as text. Remember that Google and other sites may archive websites, so material that you just deleted may remain visible for a while. These items will likely disappear over time as Google updates its results.

Has your personal information been exposed online? Remove my information

Social media is the “heel” of your digital footprint; it’s where we tend to leave the most weight. Even if your online activity usually revolves around sharing harmless memes and family photos, there are ways you can improve your online image. For example, you may have “liked” a page or business years ago that you no longer care about, or you might have followed someone who has since gained an ugly reputation. Or there might have been arguments you’ve gotten into, or things you wish you hadn’t said, that are posted for all to see. Take a moment to find those things, delete them, and apologize to those involved if necessary.

Remove content that presents you in a bad light

You’ll need to take different steps, depending on whether or not you are the one who posted the content:

  • If you are the one who posted the content: Take a moment to read over what you’ve posted, even if it’s not under your own name, and ask yourself if it’s something you would say in person. If not, consider deleting it; you never know when your anonymity might be compromised.
  • If someone else posted the content: It’s a lot harder to get other people to remove negative content. Websites will have varying policies on removing content, but it never hurts to send a polite email requesting that content be removed.

Watch what you post

The best way to keep your digital footprint clean is to not get it dirty. Think carefully before getting into an argument online, even with friends and family. Before posting a comment, ask yourself if this is something you want to be tied to your name. One of the best ways to keep your digital footprint tidy and a smart rule of reputation management, in general, is to simply think carefully before you say anything online.

You also need to teach your kids how to be smart about what they share on the Internet. It’s much easier to maintain a clean online reputation than to try to tidy it up when you need to apply to colleges and your first job.

Turn off tagging

Regardless of how vigilant you are about what you share online, you can’t control what other people post. For example, somebody at a party could take a group picture that shows you looking embarrassingly tipsy—without your knowledge or permission. And before you know it, that photograph is going viral on Facebook.

Ready to protect your identity & secure your private information? Protect my identity

If this photographer person is a friend, then all you have to do is ask him or her to remove the picture. However, the process can sometimes be more complicated. Unfortunately, cyberbullies, ex romantic partners, and even hackers often obtain embarrassing photos of people and share them online.

One way to avoid this humiliation and avoid any potential problems in establishing new relationships or getting a job is to take control of which pictures you are tagged in.

  • On Facebook: The Timeline Review section under Settings allows you to view all posts you are tagged in, even those from people who aren’t your friends. Just select “Enabled” under “Review posts you’re tagged in before the post appears on your timeline?” Then, follow the directions to Approve or Remove Tags in the Facebook Help Center.
  • On Twitter: Go to “Settings and Privacy>Privacy and Safety>Photo Tagging” and switch the tab from “Anyone can tag you” to “Only people you follow can tag you.”
  • On Instagram: To see photos and videos that other people have tagged you in, go to your profile and click the tag icon. Then, tap the picture you want to remove the tag from. This will make your username appear. Click your username to bring up the drop-down menu and choose “Remove Me From Post.” To receive a notification whenever someone tags you, go to Settings>Privacy>Tags and switch “Add Automatically” to “Off.” If you are tagged in a comment, you can either ask the individual who tagged you to delete the comment (tap the person’s username and click “Message”) or you can block him or her from tagging you in the future by tapping the three dots menu from the user’s profile and selecting “Block.”
Has your personal information been exposed online? Remove my information

Adjust your privacy settings

Some apps automatically give away information about you—including your contacts, files stored on your device, and your geolocation data—to third parties. As such, you should review the privacy settings of each app you use to avoid exposing too much personal information. 

You should also change the privacy settings in your social media accounts to limit who can see your posts. In general, the fewer people who see your posts, the smaller your digital footprint will be. 

  • Instagram: To make your Instagram account completely private, go to “Settings>Privacy>Account Privacy” and switch the “Private Account” toggle to “On.”
  • Twitter: Go to “Settings and Privacy” Once there, click on the “Privacy and Safety” tab.
  • Pinterest: While you can’t make your account private without deactivating it, Pinterest lets you make boards private. Just toggle “Secret” whenever you create or edit a board and click “Save.”
  • Snapchat: To prevent strangers from seeing your SnapChats, go to “Settings>Manage Who Can View My Story” and choose “My Friends.” You can find additional privacy instructions on SnapChat’s support page.
  • Facebook: Go to the “Privacy” tab and toggle all settings that keep people from seeing your information, contacting you, or seeing what you post. Make sure nothing is set to “Public.”

Construct a positive online image

Once you have done your best to remove content that presents you in a bad light, the next step is to change the online conversation by creating new, positive content that portrays you as you want to be seen. This new content will then fill up your search results and push any remaining negative items down onto subsequent pages, where most people never look

Some effective ways to flood the Internet with information you control include:

  • Getting active on social media (if you weren’t already)
  • Writing a blog
  • Contributing to online forum discussions

When to ask for help

First impressions are important, but sometimes it takes a lot of effort to make a good one online. If you are overwhelmed by the task of cleaning up your digital footprint, it may be time to call in a professional

ReputationDefender can help you find and remove embarrassing items in your digital footprint while replacing them with high-quality content designed to improve your online reputation. Contact us today for a free consultation.

For additional privacy information, see the following articles: