How to Establish a Professional Online Presence

Freelance Writer

Maybe you’ve been told to “think before you post” things online. That’s good advice, as you don’t want a future employer (or your mom) to see that picture of you doing something . . . umm . . . off-color. But you should also make an effort to improve your existing online presence, putting your best digital foot forward.

You’ve done it. Crossing that stage, eagerly shaking the hand of a trustee you’ve never met, family and friends shouting with glee in the crowd, you finally obtained your college degree. Years of hard work and dedication led you to this intellectual summit. But as the handshakes and back-patting continue, one question suddenly stirs you to your core:

“So how’s the job hunt going?” The question is fair, yet you have little to no idea how to respond. How does one look professional in today’s highly competitive job market? One of the most important steps is building a professional online presence, a task that can be boiled down into a few essential steps.

Manage your social networks

Nothing online can ever truly be deleted. As such, it’s important that you present yourself in as favorable a light as possible when someone is looking for you online. Disingenuous posts and statuses on sites like Facebook and Twitter should be taken down. Photos showing you intoxicated or in embarrassing situations should be untagged and removed if possible. The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, don’t post it.

But before you worry that you need to strip your online presence down to just another arm of your résumé, take heart: there is room for your personality out on the Web. Cheryl Welch, the Director of Content and Audience Development for the Grand Haven Tribune, in Grand Haven, Michigan, says there’s a fine line between appropriateness and letting what makes you unique shine through. “In journalism, we're a quirky bunch, so I really am not impacted much by goofy or party photos. But if you're making a complete ass of yourself in the pictures or in what you post online, you will not get an interview. If you're funny, edgy, and thoughtful in your posts, you're more likely to get an interview.”

If you feel uncomfortable deciding what to keep and what to scrap on your social media profiles, take advantage of the privacy features available. Facebook in particular offers various levels of protection that everyone should be aware and take advantage of­.

Create and maintain a LinkedIn account

LinkedIn is a social networking website aimed at working professionals and linking businesses with prospective employees. In this capacity, it’s the premier professional website and boasts more than 200 million users. “LinkedIn is probably the best professional online network that exists to form connections with companies,” says Serena Carpenter, a journalism professor at Michigan State University. Much of Carpenter’s work with students includes helping to build online portfolios and highlighting the skills that are appealing in today’s ever-evolving job market. Carpenter adds that while the site may not have the traffic of Facebook or Twitter, it ranks high with Google search and is perhaps the first thing employers will see when they begin searching for candidates online.

The profile page allows users to display work experience, skills, affiliations, education, and contact information, effectively providing a digital résumé for interested parties. The site also does much of the work uniting users to one another through recommendations and encourages modes of contact from other profiles, such as e-mail accounts and social media. Scott Westerman, the Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations at Michigan State University, helps graduates shine over other applicants. One of the most effective methods to do this, according to Westerman, is through the profile section of LinkedIn. “Write your profile as if you were chasing a job at your favorite company. Use keywords that will attract HR people and recruiters who are looking for someone who would be doing the job you want to do” He continues, emphasizing the necessity of getting invested in LinkedIn before you emerge from college raring to get a job. “Getting a job is a lot like getting married. It’s the official recognition of a situation that already exists. Show how you can do the job and you're more likely to get the job.”

Fill up your Google search results

When employers are searching online, guarantee they find you. Of course, anyone with a common last name such as Smith, Johnson, or Lee knows how difficult this task can be. These quick tips can help your moniker break through:  

  • Try different versions of your name. Instead of John Smith, go by Jonathan Smith or use your middle name or just middle initial to differentiate—anything to create your name as a brand.
  • If it feels comfortable, use your initials. Instead of Terry J. Jones, go by T.J. Jones, which may grab the attention of recruiters.
  • Whatever name you settle on, remain consistent. Use it for every online profile available.

Make sure to have accounts for every major social media site on the Web, including Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and sites pertaining to your career field. This makes it more likely that employers find you when casting their employment nets into the depths of the Internet. And not only is it important to simply have these profiles, you should also fill out and maintain your accounts. When asked what one thing turns her off most to a potential candidate, Carpenter says seeing incomplete website profiles tops her list of pet peeves. “It’s something that shows they don’t have the motivation to produce content on their own time.”

Say cheese

There is a significant difference between passable photos and professional headshots. While lower-resolution shots or pictures in large groups of people are fine for simply being social online, transitioning to a professional presence requires more effort.

An easy way job seekers can separate themselves from the pack is through professional photography, according to Carpenter. (And remember: photography is a popular hobby, so ask around to see if any friends or relatives have high-quality cameras and a passion for composition before you schedule an expensive photo session.) These images help set the tone for prospective employers and make you appear not only aware of how image can impact decision-making but that you are capable and decisive enough to make the necessary adjustments. You wouldn’t go into a professional interview wearing tennis shoes, so why go into an online job market with a cellphone picture whitewashed in florescent lighting?

Find your niche and become an expert

The quest for what makes your life meaningful is a marathon not everyone will complete. However, Westerman emphasizes the importance of searching for the job you want, rather than the job you’ll dread reporting to.

“Figure out what you're really passionate about. What would you do if you were working for love and not for money?” says Westerman. “Is there a way you could get paid to do that? Start from there and work backwards to the entry-level gig that puts you on a trajectory to your dream job.”

Carpenter also emphasizes that to her students and says once you find that special career field, cement yourself as a thought leader. Instead of being a middle-of-the-road candidate, scope out one topic area and become an expert—someone even enthusiasts in that field can turn to.

Wherever you are in your career search, look to the future. That future, for better or for worse, includes the Web. Explore and adapt to present yourself to prospective employers in the best light possible. Little changes and insight may one day be the difference between sitting in that corner office and sitting in the mailroom.

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