by Chris Hutsul, published 2004 Jan 13th, The Toronto Star

 Google's search engine of shame

In the days leading up to his blind date, "Jeff" did some research. By visiting Google, the infamous search engine that seems to know a thing or two about everyone and everything, he was able to deduce some basic information about his date.

Nothing incriminating, just simple random points of interest: where she graduated, in what place her soccer team finished ...

According to Google, Jeff determined that his date is a bit of a catch.

If only the same could be said for Jeff, who, according to Google, is a bit of a dork.

"About four years ago, I came home drunk and started posting a bunch of angry rants against vegetarians," he told me. "I don't even have anything against them I was just being a jerk. I just hope she doesn't Google me ..."

Well, Jeff, my reformed vegetarian-hater, you've got cause for concern, because your date (who may or may not be a vegetarian) has probably already punched your inconveniently distinctive name into the search field, and has read your thoughts on the people you call "vege-trend-ians,' among other things.

Like it or not, many of us in the Internet generation have left a digital trail on the World Wide Web. There's a good chance that a random smattering of your personal information is dangling out there for anyone to peruse. That information could be fairly benign, as is the case for Jeff's date, or in the case of Jeff, downright embarrassing.

Because sooner or later, someone, somewhere will pull up your curriculum googlae.

"This generation wants to know everything about everything ..." says Tim Richardson, professor of Internet studies and e-Commerce at the University of Toronto and Seneca College. "And people don't realize that sometimes their postings on message boards or in chat rooms can last four or five years.

"If your lifestyle changed, and you'd posted something inappropriate in 1999, well that's still going to be there."

Jeff knows his own "inappropriate" postings are lingering on the Web because he routinely self-Googles. He does so for precautionary purposes. For him to not self-Google would be to enter the date unequipped to deal with the information or misinformation that surely will have been noted by his date.

He'll have to address the postings early on in the engagement, smooth it off somehow, and put a lighthearted spin on it...

"It was part of a dare ..." or, "I was just trying to rile them up ..."

Then, of course, Jeff will have to explain why he'd self-Googled in the first place. After all, does he really want to come across as the kind of self- obsessed person who uses the Web for naval-gazing?

As painful as it is to admit, the act (which has been referred to as ego-surfing, or vanity-searching) must be committed.

In my case, I've had to self-Google in order to scout out all the sites that have unlawfully republished my articles and drawings. As it turns out, copyright violations are the least of my concerns.

Some of the things that show up on my self-Google make me shudder.

Nonsensical postings, photos that were never meant for global exposure, and worse of all, a 30-page anti-Hutsul message board by Lord Of The Rings fans responding to a story I wrote before the first film was released. Let it be known to all aspiring scribes: botch information relating to the lineage of Middle-Earth sects, and you will pay dearly.

All this makes one wish the Web could take note of all the times you helped an old lady cross the street ...

Of course, the perils of Google fall mostly upon those of us with unusual names. The Robert Hendersons of the world can rest peacefully, knowing their excruciating Grade 11 poetry remains shrouded in online obscurity.

... Sometimes, in the night, I'm deafened by the silence, and I realize, solitude is my destiny ...

But what can Jeff and I and do about these online albatrosses? How can we clear our good names?

According to professor Richardson, we'll have to just wait it out. Or, with some Web know-how, we could take matters into our own hands.

"If you wanted a page to not be found, all you have to do is create a bunch of newer pages that say something positive, or post them on a message board ... and the search engines are going to return the freshest pages at the top," says Richardson.

"The unwanted pages get bumped to the back of the list."

Unless Jeff's date is a luddite, it may be too late for this strategy to take effect.

In the meantime, he should heed the simple rule: don't drink and surf!

Meanwhile, I'd like to officially apologize for any distress I've caused the LOTR community. After three years of libel, you've made your point.
 
 
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