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Colleges look for ways to help students scrub online footprints

Friday, January 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:09 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 30, 2013

COLUMBIA — Lauren Zaki said her boyfriend, who graduated with honors in December with a degree in biological engineering from MU, spent six hours on the Internet scrubbing away evidence of his hobby — playing in a death metal band.

"He received an email from his employer recommending him to clean up his association with his band," Zaki said. "He got rid of his old concert posters and YouTube videos." 

A growing number of employers use search engines and social network sites to recruit their employees, which has driven campuses across the country to adopt different tools to help students clean up their online footprints.

MU also has been addressing this growing trend by providing workshops and one-on-one assistance to its students.

"Employers are using sites like LinkedIn and Facebook more and more to search for employees," said Craig Benson, assistant director at the MU Career Center. "We're in the process of training our staff on how to help students develop a positive LinkedIn site, and we're exploring sites like BrandYourself.com."

Syracuse and Johns Hopkins are among universities that have recently struck a deal with BrandYourself, an online reputation repair site which gives students free access to boost the most positive online pages of themselves in search results.

"People need to be aware of the information that others can access, and there are people who can be mistakenly identified with the same name," said Mike Cahill, a career services director at Syracuse. "You need to be aware of what your online presence is, and you need to be able to manage that online presence."

Cahill said Syracuse started providing BrandYourself as a tool to help its students not only to see what is out there for them but also to help them proactively present a stronger image of themselves online.

A free account allows users to submit up to three links to content that presents a desirable image, while an $80-per-year premium account allows unlimited submission of links, which will help bury negative pages.

Pete Kistler and Patrick Ambron, co-founders of BrandYourself, came up with the business idea when Kistler was denied an internship back in college because he was mistakenly identified as a drug dealer with the same name.

"Back then, you had to pay 8 to $10,000 to put the contents on a search engine," Ambron said. "We thought 'Everyone should do this, and it shouldn't cost this much money,' so we decided to create a product that helps everybody to do it themselves."

Benson said there are multiple layers of issues that students need to consider. In addition to limiting access or removing inappropriate materials from their social media, they also should find ways to get the most positive information about themselves to show up at the top of search results.

Burt Nadler, Career and Internship Center director at the University of Rochester in New York, said he agrees it's important to teach students to be cautious about what they post on social media.

"Do we need to hire a service? Some schools might, but I — as the career services director — don't believe that's necessary," Nadler said. "They are smart young men and women who go to a selective, nationally ranked school who can look at their resources and say, 'This is silly. I'm not going to let people look at this.'"

A social recruiting survey of 1,000 human resources professionals conducted by Jobvite in May and June 2012 found that 92 percent of respondents use or plan to use social media for recruiting.

Matthew Reiske, executive director of Business Career Services at MU, said the College of Business provides five to seven workshops per semester that are dedicated to managing social media. It was also one of the topics that was brought to attention during panel discussions, Reiske said.

"We have to educate our students to make certain that what they are posting is an image that they want the public to see,” Reiske said. “We are pretty confident about what we do here at MU compared to our competitors.”

Reiske said business students at MU must take a course called "professional development in business." It touches on the use of social media in students' job-searching process.

Zaki said a few of her friends were rejected for jobs because of inappropriate materials they posted on Facebook. She hopes employers would pay more attention to regular background checks than to pictures and posts people make on Facebook. That's why she limits her time spent on social media.

"It's sad that social media turned out to be something else," Zaki said. "It used to be for staying connected with friends, but now it's something you have to be cautious about."

Reiske said the school tries to make different tools available for students to take care of their online footprints, and using online reputation sites such as BrandYourself is a possible option.

"If it's feasible for us financially, we will definitely take a strong look at that," Reiske said. “From my office's perspective, we would put more resources toward this, so if there are good sites that require a fee, we'll definitely evaluate them.”

Ambron said more universities have approached BrandYourself in the past couple of months.

"I think universities are organically picking up on it as it's becoming a bigger trend," he said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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