With the start of a new year, it’s wise to take the first steps toward improving your online presence if you haven’t, already. These days, it’s rare for an employer to not Google your name and see who you are outside of the interview. This gives them a more accurate perception of what you’ll be like after you’ve been hired. Unfortunately, not everyone has the best online presence.

Some people act as if their Facebook presence and what they post to the Web through various channels won’t negatively affect them. This isn’t true. If you proudly display pictures online of yourself drinking or taking part in lewd acts, this reflects negatively on you; the good impression you made upon a potential employer in that job interview is likely wasted if he or she happens upon a more… candid representation of your extracurricular activities in a Google search.

With the growth of Google and its social network, Google+, you can’t escape the wrath of Google — for better or for worse. The company recently pushed out a new social search feature that, by default, will give you search results based on you and who you know over what might be relevant for a search that someone else might make for the same subject. This has, of course, sparked controversy not only because Google is magnifying the importance of its own social media project (Google+), but also makes what might be otherwise obscure (and embarrassing) content that people have made over the years a little more visible when their names come up in search.

For example, because my name is less common than, say, “John Smith,” if you search for Craighton Miller on Google, you’ll find me in the top results — including my blog, personal site, and even my Twitter account. Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to build up a positive name for myself online so that when I am Googled by a potential employer, this positive view of who I am is reflected. If you’re looking toward taking control over your online presence and putting your best face forward, creating a website or personal blog for yourself is an excellent first step. It’s pretty easy these days to set up a free WordPress.com blog, for example, to create a personal site or portfolio for employers to see.

And no matter how unique you think your name happens to be, there’s bound to be someone out there who shows up when others are searching for you; make sure that you stand out enough so there can be no doubt as to which you is being represented in the best light possible. If you’ve got an evil twin out there who shares your name and is constantly being disruptive in online communities, being aware of their misdeeds and taking measures to distance yourself from their transgressions can go a long way when it comes time to prove that you’re not that guy.

I recently went through an interview where my name was Googled right there in front of me; we were instantly able to bring up my personal site and see my portfolio and positive name that I’ve made for myself online. If I had not had such a visible online presence with sites that were clearly in my control, any number of other Craighton Millers might have the power to besmirch my good name through their irresponsible actions on other networks (like Facebook) and forums. In the case of this interview, it would have been easy for me to point out search results that pertained to me, but you’re not always going to be lucky enough to plead your own case. By Googling yourself often, you can be aware of doppelgangers out there who — inadvertently or purposely — might be mistaken for you. Then you can make an effort to counter this.

A general rule of thumb that I like to use: If you don’t want the whole world to see what you have to say about something, don’t put it on the Internet. Once it is posted to the Internet, it is very hard to get it removed. For example, take Facebook and the photos that get posted there. If you delete a photo from Facebook, it isn’t really deleted; it stays on the network’s servers and can even show up in Google searches. Search engines like Google also cache websites; if users can access the site directly, an earlier, cached version can often be served up and viewed.

If you don’t Google yourself, then you won’t be prepared to explain any unfavorable results that might show up somewhere down the road — such as during that crucial job interview. Create a strategy to protect yourself from negative and irrelevant information, and be ready to answer for any lapses in judgment you may have had along the way. If you focus on optimizing your own content to reflect positively when your name is brought up in a search, you should see these good results crawl up toward the top over time. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the sooner you start being aware of how you’re perceived when your name is Googled, you have a better chance of taking control of that perception.

For instance, I have a friend who shares his name with a criminal. Unfortunately, because my friend doesn’t have much of an online presence, the criminal shows up at the top when his name is Googled. In short, if you care about your online presence, don’t be like my friend! Even having a personal blog that’s updated regularly should knock down such inaccurate and unflattering results.

Think of Google as Big Brother. He knows everything from where you live to who your family and friends are to what kind of music you listen to. He’s seen all of those embarrassing photos you’ve posted. I’m not repeating this point because I like to see myself type; I’m repeating myself to remind you that the Internet knows everything. Chances are that if you input any personal information to a website, it will show up somewhere. Remember MySpace? The information that you left behind when MySpace was in its heyday is still there and is indexed by Google.

In short: It’s never too early (or too late) to gain a positive influence online.

For the start of 2012, try to create a personal blog if you don’t have one already. It’s so easy these days — and can be done for free. My favorite blog website is WordPress. It provides free blogs that are easily managed and customized with hundreds of themes from which you can pick. If you are feeling a little more advanced, you can install its software on a Web host and expand your blog even more.

If you have some good Google search stories about what happens when you Google your name, feel free to leave them in the comments.