We have grown up in a digital world; a world that is developing and changing every second of every day. We are “supposedly” advancing.

But there are downfalls of the digital and social media lifestyle most college students have today.

As a writer for college students on topics that normally include tips on dorm life, how to do well in college, and preparing for a career after college, these two topics are definitely on my radar. I write about online reputation management all the time in the context of how it can help you land a job in your chosen career.

The World Wide Web keeps us connected and informed. The question is when does that freedom of information at your fingertips go too far?

Mug Shot Websites: Extortion or Capitalism?

Since 2010 these types of sites have been growing in popularity and until last October were at the point of being out of control. The root of the problem with mug shot websites is that public information is (by definition) public. When a company takes the time to develop a way to capture that public information and hand it on a silver platter in the form of top of the page search results, by definition that is a service.

The way I see it, these mug shot sites have the service a aspect backwards. Instead of charging the people looking for the data, as many ‘people finder’ websites do, they were charging the people in the mug shots to remove their name and picture.

At that point, the website is no longer about listing information, it is about making money to remove listings; and they were making a pretty penny, with fees upwards of $400 for deleting a name and photo. I think most people would agree that this is an underhanded practice at best, and possibly even could be considered extortion.

The mug shot websites that are working for profit call it capitalism. However, paying off one site doesn’t mean another one won’t show up next.

Mug Shot Websites vs. Background Checks

Employers seeking information about a recent college graduate that is a potential employee might Google their name. What started out as a social profile search ends with details about a prior arrest.

The other thing that ends is that candidate’s potential for being hired. The search listing is quite damaging to the person who was arrested, but may never have been convicted and still has the same stigma associated with them. It is equally damaging to someone who already served time and paid for a crime they may have committed in their youth.

Sure, employees have been performing background checks on potential hires for years, but seeing a search result at the top of the listing can be even more of a dark mark because Google is a much more public arena than a background check document.

Anyone else can see this about a company’s employee, likely influencing them not to hire the mug shot “victim”. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center issued a warning  and says it’s gotten hundreds of reports of this problem, and they are seeking complaints  from anyone affected.

Google to the Rescue, Maybe?

These websites specifically optimize to show up for each person’s name when searched, it is how they make their money, but is it the most relevant search results?

In October of 2013, Google announced an algorithm change that downgraded the many different mug shot websites that structure themselves for the practice described above. Google is allowed to alter their results and change their algorithm at will, but some question if targeting specific sites that are not doing anything that is technically illegal is the “right” thing to do.

Granted, these sites are not spreading positivity and what they do is bordering on crossing the line of privacy, as well as extortion. So it is not like anyone (other than the site owners) wants them around making money off of people’s misfortune. Mastercard has also frowned upon this activity and has stopped allowing them to accept Mastercard as a form of online payment.

However, the question still remains, should Google be dictating what we can and cannot see in search results? If they curb these types of websites, then who’s next?

Manage Your Own Online Reputation

At the very least, Google’s ranking smack down of mug shot websites means that it will be easier for you to control your online information and build the reputation that you want to be known for in your professional career. Here are some tips for taking control of your own search results and having an excellent showing the next time a potential employer “Googles” you.

  • Fill Out Social Media Profiles: Even though most of your social media channels are private and only your “friends” can see what you post, the profile section is still public. Fill in all the fields and use a professional looking photo. Your profile photo is public and can be seen by anyone.
  • Get Your Free Personal Websites: There are several different websites  like About.Me and ItsMyURLs that are free.  Set yourself up with each of them and fill in all of the fields they ask for. Add in as much personal and professional details that you want everyone to see. Remember these are public web pages, not private social profiles.
  • Update Your Google Profile: Your Google profile is now attached to Google Plus and that should be filled out completely with as much information as you can think of, make yourself look professional. You never know which connection might help you get a job.
  • Take Full Advantage of LinkedIn: LinkedIn is the professional social network. Your other social channels can keep up appearances for you, but LinkedIn is where you can network, post your resume, and many people find jobs there. If you’d like to attract top employers to your LinkedIn profile, check out Joshua’s LinkedIn Writing Service.