I’m a researcher at a major university. Unfortunately, I happen to share my name and middle initial with an unrelated drug dealer who has been in and out of prison. My name is sufficiently rare that I’m worried that confusion might arise, because a cursory Google search tends to give prominence to negative news stories that feature him.
The standard advice online seems to be to open as many social media accounts as possible. I also have my own domain, but none of these has displaced the negative news stories in the search rankings. What should I do? Name withheld
How to get the top spot in Google’s search engine results has been a hot topic for years. It’s still vitally important to all types of business, to consultants and other professionals, bands and musicians, authors and journalists, politicians and many others. For those who can justify the fees, personal branding and “reputation management” companies do it for a living.
At this point, all the information you need is online somewhere. The problem is that it takes a significant amount of work, which may or may not be worth it.
In your case, I imagine that anybody likely to search for the name of a bright, young academic is not going to confuse you with a drug dealer almost twice your age. They already know that two or, usually, many more people have the same name. The people who could have real problems are the ones who share names and professions. Two journalists spring to mind: Duncan Campbell, a novelist and former Guardian crime reporter, and Duncan Campbell, an investigative reporter and television producer formerly on the staff of the New Statesman. Neither is likely to be confused with Duncan Campbell, the artist who won the Turner prize in 2014, or the Duncan Campbell from the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, or numerous others.
However, the general advice is correct. You need to displace your namesake by producing content that Google’s search algorithms find more compelling than old newspaper crime reports. You could do this by becoming famous, which would generate vast numbers of links to your name. Failing that, you will have to generate as many links as you can through social media, and by writing popular articles, or blogging.
Sting, Cher, Madonna and others have successfully managed to cement themselves as mononymous household names. Photograph: BabiradPicture/REX/Shutterstock
It helps to have a distinctive name, so you are off to a good start. People with common names can use various techniques to distinguish themselves. These include varying their first name (Edward, Ed, Eddy, Eddie, Ted, Teddy, Ned, Neddy etc), adding or dropping a middle initial, or expanding and hyphenating their surnames. Some people have become known by their initials, including the American poet EE Cummings and the English author JRR Tolkien. Entertainers can invent stage names, which can be mononymous. Examples include Cher and Sting.
Under English law, you can change your surname to whatever you like, and for convenience, affirm it in a deed poll. This can make sense if your surname is problematic or you are anglicising a name. It would be extreme for your purposes.
However, the key point is to decide on a fixed nomenclature, adopt it, and stick to it. This could include using the Dr to which your PhD entitles you, and abbreviating your first name. You already get the top hit on Google for this search, so tell people to use it.
You should also write yourself an identifying statement. The younger Duncan Campbell, for example, uses “investigative journalist & computer forensics expert”, and this appears in his Twitter bio. Google search can use statements like this to disambiguate people who have the same name.
At the moment, your naming and labelling is inconsistent.
Once you have decided on a name and a catchy (if possible) description, you should update your website and Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media accounts so that they all send Google the same unique and distinctive message. The more you can incorporate your chosen nomenclature into your academic life, the better.
After that, it is mainly a question of repetition, repetition, repetition.
Own your domain name
Getting your own domain and site can provide a central place for broadcasting your name across the internet. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures / Alamy/Alamy
Google’s results are influenced by domain names so buying appropriate names is a good branding investment. Obviously, .com is the most powerful TLD (top-level domain), but most common names were snapped up ages ago. Alternatives include .co.uk, .org, .net, and .info.
Some country domains are popular, and .ac (Ascension Island) could appeal to academics. Radio and TV stations can buy .am (Armenia), .fm (Federated States of Micronesia), and .tv (Tuvalu) addresses. Technology companies have used .ai (Anguilla), .io (British Indian Ocean Territory), .ly (Libya), and .ws (Western Samoa). The .co (Colombia) and .me (Montenegro) domains have broad appeal. Some countries require a local presence, trademark or registered business address, but many people should be able to find a usable domain name somewhere.
Once you have a domain, you need to use it, and you have. But one page of static content is not going to hold Google’s interest for long. Ideally, you should have several pages. You could have a landing page that says what you do and why you care about it. You should have an “about yourname” page that links to your university page and social media accounts, and ideally, these should link back to your website. You could have a publications page that links to your academic papers, with précis, and so on.
Google’s founding idea was that you could decide a web page’s importance from the number of links to it, and from the quality of the websites doing the linking. A link from the Guardian or the BBC has a lot more “google juice” than a link from, say, Flickr or YouTube, but they all count.
Google Search tries to detect and punish techniques such as “keyword stuffing” and “link farming”, so you have to avoid anything that looks deceptive while also trying to reinforce your name and declaration. Links should be natural.
Ideally, you should update your website regularly, at least once a month. Google has a strong bias towards “freshness”. The more often you update your website, the more often Google’s spiders will index it, and the better you will score.
Reach out for validation
Medium is a popular light blogging platform. Photograph: Medium
Prof Brian Cox did not become a household name by publishing academic papers. You do not have to aim for that level of name recognition, but there are lots of things you can do to make your name more widely known. You are, after all, a recognised expert, and your field is more important to more people than particle physics.
Blogging became a simple and socially acceptable way to build a reputation online after Blogger was launched in 1999, and it became even more important after Google bought the company in 2003. If you cannot blog on your own website, you can blog at yourname.blogspot.com, while linking to your main site and social media accounts.
You can also post short stories about your research topics at Medium and LinkedIn, and possibly on a Facebook “fan page”, and promote them on Twitter. Aim at an audience that will never read your academic papers. If you are successful, your thoughts will be picked up by other publications. If you are not, it’s still worth doing. Your real target audience is Google.
It will take a few months, but you should be able to build up a coherent online presence that establishes your identity, your authority and your continuing activity. Those are the three things that will increase your reputation with Google’s search algorithms, and improve your visibility. You can’t make your namesake disappear, but you may yet be able to outrank him.
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