USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





?Ego-Surfing? derides valid, prudent activity

So I was speaking about searching for one's own name on the Web in a CNet radio interview a couple months back, when the hosts slapped the pejorative label of 'Ego-Surfing' on the activity.

Ego-Surfing? Since when did something that for many Web professionals and journalists is not only reasonable but prudent become an egotistical vanity habit?

Now, I'm not saying some people might not perform searches for themselves on the Internet to boost their self-esteem, ego, or whatnot. But what prompted the media to simplistically deride the activity as no more than a self-serving ego boost -- besides the fact that portraying groups of Internet users in a negative (and pathetic) light makes for easy copy?

A recent Reuters article traces the term 'ego-surfing' to a 1998 entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and highlighted a site called egosurf.com that caters to that search activity.

While the story highlights many reasonable, non-egotistical reasons to search for yourself on the Internet, a condescending tone pervades the piece. ?? Vanity? How about professional practicality or necessity?

If you are a Web professional -- whether an online instructor or journalist, Web developer or marketer -- you should be aware of your presence on the Web. And perhaps more importantly, the existence of Web namesakes.

And if you are active in the job market, being aware of your nom-de-plume's cyberexistence is crucial. You should be aware of any nefarious deeds or ill impressions Internet namesakes may be performing.

A savvy hirer in today's online world will perform searches to see how, where and in what context you show up on the Web.

In an ironic switch for an activity labeled 'ego-surfing,' people searching for your name will often assume all matches apply to you -- no matter how many John Q. Publics there may be in Cyberspace.

Imagine I just finished an interview for a management position in an Internet company. I was well received, my experience matched what they are looking for, and I am generally feeling very confident.

But what if, in searching the Internet after the interview, they discover I?ve published racist manifestos, am a known felon, and that I regularly post vicious and libelous diatribes about corporate executives -- including one from their company.

Or at least, people with my name do.

Now imagine instead that, aware of my nefarious Net counterparts, I had casually mentioned in the interview how strange it is to have people with the same name being misidentified by search engines. In one stroke I nullified a potential problem and showed off my Net savvy.

Perhaps this scenario sounds far-fetched, or you are secure and happy with your current position and not concerned about entering the online job market. But wouldn't you still like to know your cyberreputation?

Do your friends surf the Net? Colleagues? Your Family? Wouldn't you like to be aware of what they may be reading about 'you'?

Shouldn't you be aware if you are being libeled on Web sites or newsgroups?

How about if people are misappropriating your intellectual property?

If you work in any realm of the Web, 'ego-surfing' can act as a crucial defense of your professional reputation. ?? How to 'ego-surf'

Searching for your name on the Web is actually quite simple. In most search engines, performing a search with quotation marks around a set of words will search for that 'phrase.'

So for instance, 'patrick dent' will search for Web pages that have those words in consecutive order on a page, so as to avoid results leading to the phrase 'Patrick discovered a dent in his car,' 'Patrick Smith met John Dent,' or other non-relevant instances of names.

OK, so you are going to enter your name in quotes -- but where?

The best search engines for these types of searches (the ones that turn up the most results) are search services that scour the largest percentage of the Web such as AltaVista, Google and HotBot.

But what about relevancy?

Well, for the purposes of these search endeavors we want to get even the most obscure reference to you, while excluding pages about other people.

So the initial results should all be relevant to your name, but will not all be to you in particular. The next step is to narrow down the results by excluding references to other people.

For instance, if one person with your name is a gymnist, exclude that term (in most search engines you can add the minus sign before a word to exclude terms).

As you find groups of pages involving a namesake, simply add more exclusionary terms to the search -- narrowing it pages mentioning you (obviously hoping that there are not many pages that mention you and one of those exclude words).

So how do the different engines fare against each other? In my testing, here is what I noticed: Google: Excellent. With its large percentage of Web coverage, returned the most results hands-down. ? Ego-Surf: Good. This niche site's instructions and tips are customized to searching for names, so a neophyte to Web searching would have an easier time getting relevant results. Irritating that it only shows 20 results in normal mode. ? Excite: Good. Performed surprisingly well. Excite?s search spiders must be expanding their coverage of the Web. ? AltaVista: Good. One of my favorites for most search tasks, did better-than-average. In this case quality (of Web references) was higher than quantity. But opposite of Excite, it returned less results than expected. ? HotBot: OK.. Also hits a large percentage of the Web, but was not as useful for name queries as other search areas. ? AskJeeves: Horrible. This consumer-friendly search service is NOT suited to name searching by its very nature. True substantive results require an AskJeeves editor to enter a question and its answer; otherwise it simply passes your query to other search engines. Other sites you may want to consider include newsgroup engines such as dejanews and meta-search services such as Dogpile that perform searches on multiple sites and combine the results for you.

All of this is fine in the abstract, but how about a hands-on example of how to do it and why you should care? ?? The many faces of Patrick Dent

Now, I periodically perform searches for my name, but let?s assume I am doing it for the first time.

Going in, I would expect to find my name in three contexts: articles I've written that are posted online, Web sites for college courses I have taught, and projects or studies I've participated in.

So I got to Alta Vista (www.altavista.com) and searched for 'patrick dent' -- situating the search string in quotes so that it searches for the phrase and not each word individually.

My search results in 31 matches. Of those, 11 are actual matches that refer to me.

(Ouch, only 11? If I were ego-surfing, I'd say that would be a test of how healthy my self-image is. Well at least other sites like Google topped 110 relevant pages about me.)

Other hits include a genealogy site that includes a 17th century 'Patrick Dent' and pages mentioning an assistant college gymnastics coach who shares my name.

If I wanted to refine my search string, I would probably alter it to 'patrick dent' -gymnastics -collegiate -genealogy. I would not exclude the word college, as Web pages involving my university teaching could include that.

So, besides idle curiosity, what legitimate (and professional) reason do I have for paying attention to those 11 hits?

For one thing, they take me to articles and journals that quote from stories I've written (and in some cases forgot all about). As a journalist, I am concerned about where and how I am quoted, and if any of my writings are misappropriated.

As a matter of fact, I discovered articles and journals that misattributed quotes from articles I had written. In one example, excerpts and commentary from a speech at the 1998 Spring Internet World were portrayed as quotes from an interview; and were represented as direct responses to issues I raised.

None of this sent me into a retraction tizzy, but it is useful to know in case at some point someone accuses me of improperly portraying material from a quote.

In the realm of curiosity and not necessity, I discovered class sites I?d put together (through a link on a student?s Web page) and the Web presence of a 'Newsroom of the Future' project I participated in.

Besides links to other random projects I?ve worked on, I of course found direct links to articles I?ve published. In that vein, I also discovered that the college newspaper where I did my graduate work archives every article written -- which in my case is more than 30. Hmm, I?m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing.

This all goes to illustrate that searching for your name on the Internet is more than the self-serving, vanity endeavor that the label 'ego-surfing' implies.

Beyond being an interesting exercise, and yes in some cases stroking your ego, it is a prudent -- if not downright necessary -- activity in today's Web-aware professional world.