Colleges getting serious about reading, writing, and reputation management

When Pete Kistler was a student at Syracuse University in 2008, a digital doppelganger with the same name and a history of drug dealing kept him from getting an internship.  Later, after realizing that it was a Google (s GOOG) search that was hindering his career prospects, he and two former classmates launched Brand Yourself, a DIY online reputation management tool that enables anyone to improve their personal search results.

Now, a handful of U.S. colleges are snapping up the program for their own students, to make sure that digital blemishes don’t discourage offers from potential employers.

In the last few months, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Rochester and Elon University bought the software for their seniors, in addition to the founders’ alma mater, which purchased the program for all of their students (previously they piloted the program with seniors).

College students are slowly waking up to the fact that searchable photos of themselves funneling beer or tweets that were clearly written under the influence aren’t going to help them get their first gig. But Mike Cahill, the head of career services at Syracuse University, said Brand Yourself helps students not only become more aware of the impression they make online, it can help them actually change their search results.

A more affordable approach to online reputation management

“It used to be that an error on your resume would put you in the do not consider pile,” he said. “Now, if you’re further along in the process, your online reputation [can put you there].”

According to a 2010 study from Microsoft and Cross Tab Marketing, 75 percent of human resources departments are required to do an online search before making a hire. And a study this year from Brand Yourself and Harris Interactive found that 42 percent of online U.S. adults that searched for a person online, did so before deciding to do business with them.

It’s hardly surprising that individuals’ online reputations affect their professional opportunities – and companies like and Integrity Defenders have been providing services for a while that promise to help individuals clean up their digital identity. But BrandYourself’s interesting difference is that instead of charging potentially thousands of dollars, it provides a Web-based program that lets people improve their own results through search engine optimization (SEO) — for about $10 a month.

“The software takes you through the process of making search results more friendly for your name,” said Ambron, BrandYourself’s CEO, and the SEO brains behind the operation.

What’s your ‘search score’?

To start, users can register for free and get their “search score” (or an assessment of the first page of results for their name). Then they can submit links that they want others to find online (i.e. their LinkedIn profile, page, etc.), as well as receive specific recommendations for boosting the visibility of those links (such as connecting a personal website to profile pages or featuring your name more prominently on a site’s URL or page heading). The site lets users submit and receive recommendations for three links but to add more, they have to upgrade to the premium service. This week, the company also launched a Facebook game that lets people compare their search score to their friends’ on the social network because users were already sharing their scores online, Ambron said.

Web publishers and others who do business on the internet may be familiar with the basics of SEO, but Brand Yourself is bringing those tactics to individual web monitoring in a way non-techies can actually understand and apply.  It’s not as comprehensive as, which monitors clients’ digital reputation across a broader spectrum of sites and databases and can provide more targeted services. But it’s a much more affordable consumer option.

The company initially launched in 2010 as a service for managing online reputations on search and social networks but re-launched early this year with a more specific focus on search. Since then, it’s raised $1.2 million (on top of about $300,000 in seed money), won a startup competition at SXSW and grown to include 10 employees. To date, Ambron said, the service has attracted more than 150,000 registered users and more than 3,000 paying members (excluding students at Syracuse, John Hopkins and its other college clients).