No, You're Not Winning Google
Have you ever Googled yourself?
(And did you just giggle at that?)
What happens when you Google your own name? What do people find?
If you're lucky, you've got a unique or unusual name that very few people have. I'm the only Erik Deckers in this part of the world.
(There are four or five others, but they're all from Belgium — one lives in Hong Kong — and we're all friends on Facebook. We wish each other happy birthday, and send little messages on occasion.)
That means whenever I find my name on Google, I am 99% certain that it's me. And since I make sure to 1) only publish positive content online, and 2) not get arrested, I know all my search results will cast me in a good light.
Except I can't be sure that I'm seeing what everyone else sees.
Five or ten years ago, if I found my content at the top of Google's search results, that meant I was winning Google. That I was ranking above all the other Erik Deckers in the world. But now it only means that Google knows where I am and that I'm the one doing the search.
Here's what I mean:
Whenever you do a search, Google wants you to have a positive experience so you'll come back and use it again. That means they want to give you the results they think you want. If you search for "Italian restaurant," they show you the Italian restaurant closest to your house, not the Italian restaurant with the best SEO 1,000 miles away.
That's because Google knows where you are, and they assume that if you're in the mood for Italian, you might not want to travel that far. They do this with all searches that can turn up local results.
They also know the kinds of things you typically search for — restaurant menus, ratings, reviews — and they'll include that in the results too.
This happens when you search for your own name. Google returns results of the person who is geographically closest to you, which is you.
And they return the results that you probably want to see: Twitter, LinkedIn, your business, your blog (you do have a blog, don't you?), the newspaper article about that big award you won, and so on.
But that's not what everyone else sees when they search for you.
That's not what that hiring manager four states away sees when she searches for your name. That's not what the new client sees when he checks you out. That's not what your favorite celebrity sees when they're deciding whether to have lunch with you. (Hey, it could happen!)
So how do you see what they see?
1. You Have to Lie to Google
If you want to get a truly good idea of what other people see, there are a couple ways to do it.
First, lie to Google. This takes two steps.
1. Do an incognito/private search.
If you use any Google products, chances are you're signed into Google at this moment. That means when you go to Gmail, YouTube, Drive, etc., you don't ever have to sign in.
That means when you go to Google.com, they know it's you. So do an Incognito (Chrome) or Private (Firefox, Safari) search. This hides you from Google's eyes and renders you anonymous, which means they won't return the results that you want to see, they'll return more general results.
2. Use a VPN to "go" to another location.
A virtual private network (VPN) lets you disguise your whereabouts by funneling all your web traffic through a server in another location. This way, you appear to be from the city where the VPN server resides. (This will be a great way to disguise your web browsing habits from your Internet service provider if they throttle your traffic, thanks to the loss of Net Neutrality.)
I bought a lifetime subscription to VPN Unlimited for less than $40 (non-affiliate link), but you can get some free versions as well. VPN Unlimited also makes a Chrome and Firefox browser extension which you can use in Incognito/Private mode.
From there, you can do a completely anonymous search for your name to see what people in other parts of the country will see.
All this gives you a better idea of your actual Google search rankings, and you can perform this search to see if you can unearth any hidden pages about you.
2. Set up alerts for your name
You could do this same kind of search every day, scrolling through results to see if there's anything new, but you've got more important things to do.
Instead, set up an automatic email alert to notify you of any new websites, blog articles, or other personal information. I recommend either Google Alerts or TalkWalker. I use them both, mostly because Google Alerts looked like it was on its way out a few years ago, and TalkWalker was a good alternative. But Google Alerts is still going strong, so either one will work.
Set up an alert for a particular search term, like your name (be sure you put your name inside quotes so the search engine will look for exactly that phrase), and set up the notification frequency to email you as soon as it finds something, or as infrequently as once a week. Then, if anything pops up, you'll receive an email about it.
This is especially useful if you need to continually keep track of your personal brand and make sure that people are finding the sorts of things you want them to find. There are plenty of other services that will monitor your brand for you for a fee, but they don't really do anything more than Google Alerts and TalkWalker.
In the end, monitoring your personal brand is up to you. But you can't take a basic Google search at face value, because they're going to show you the things they think you want to see. That's not always helpful, so you have to trick Google a bit in order to find the truth, or use a workaround like Google Alerts and TalkWalker.
If you like what you find, then you're golden. But if you don't — if someone else with your name is beating you in search, if you share a name with someone famous or infamous, or if Google knows that thing you did last summer — there are ways to fix that. I'll talk about those at a later date.
Erik Deckers is the president of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency with clients throughout the United States. He is also the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and a newspaper humor columnist since 1994. He has written several radio and stage plays, and numerous business articles. Erik was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL, and now serves on their board of directors.