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Tech: Want to Manage Your Google Identity?

I have a friend named Anna. I'd provide her full name, but then you'd probably Google her, and that's exactly what she doesn't want. When Anna was in college, she wrote a series of columns for her student newspaper about, among other things, the problem with frat boys. At the time, these stories were harmless. But now that Anna is a journalist at a major publication (not this one), she would do anything for these ditties to disappear from Google. "I've actually been working really hard to get those blasted things off my search results," she says, explaining that she's spent hours clicking other items to move favorable links higher.

It didn't work. That's why she was intrigued when she saw a new feature on the search engine called "Create your profile." Below this title was an offer from Google: "Help people find the right information when they search for you." For Anna, and millions of others who are embarrassed by their Google results, it seemed like a chance to right a few wrongs. Who wouldn't want to bury embarrassing online photos while simultaneously highlighting search results that would make any human-resources manager smile? For Anna, it would be as simple as putting her more professional work at the top of her page, replacing the No. 1 spot that her college columns have held since graduation.

But for many users who recently tried the profile function, a certain Web meme comes to mind: "Epic Fail." Instead of letting you rerank links, or adjust your search results, your Google Profile merely gives you a chance to add your name, a few headshots, and your current occupation. "Displaying profiles makes search better by enabling users to have more control over what others see about them," says a Google spokesman, who adds that there's no chance you'll ever be able to rearrange the results that show up when others search your name. "Search results are an objective reflection of what is on the Web," he says. "Results are ranked by importance and relevance."

So the new Google Profile appears at the very bottom of the search page, and it basically looks like a phone-book entry. Were I to create a Google profile, mine would say something like "Kurt Soller - Newsweek - New York, NY - Journalist." Google says that the more information you add about yourself, the more likely this new profile will appear higher up on your page. Next to that would be all the embarrassing links that have always been available when you Google my name. (Go ahead, check it out, and while you're at it, add me on Twitter.)

Once you click on this profile page, you'll get a new window that mimics a social-network account. That's not a mistake; it's clear that the search behemoth is trying to elbow its way onto the turf of Facebook and MySpace by capitalizing on everyone's mutual Internet insecurity. I've never met one person who doesn't have at least one thing they want to change on Google; allowing users this control of their personal search results is an offer that's too good to refuse. Once the profile is created, the site has nearly as much information from you as Facebook, which the search engine giant could eventually use to create a similar social network. (Currently, ads don't appear on these pages. Expect that to change.)

Given all the other social-networking options, there's not much reason to tell Google about my occupation, my interests, my "superpower" (ha, ha, engineers, we get that you are clever) or my contact info, including a private telephone number that the search company says it will only show to my e-mail contacts.

Elsewhere on the Web, the search engine's latest feature hasn't found many fans. The Google-critical bloggers at Lifehacker were glad the new profile search gave them an option to associate the right results with the correct person—especially in cases where many people share the same name. But over at Bits, the New York Times technology blog, Saul Hansell shared his own privacy concerns: "For me, I don't really want strangers to see pictures of my kids," he writes. "But I love to show pictures of my kids to my friends. Maybe Google lets me do this, but the interface is too hard for me to figure out." When my friend Anna tested the feature herself, she had her own verdict: "Godawful column still at the top of my results," she told me. "Unimpressed."

But let's remember that Google Profile is still in its infancy. Like all its products, the company is looking for audience feedback to improve the profile feature. It's the same type of testing that Google's original search function went through before it developed into its current state: the one that analyzes more than 200 factors online when providing results.

For now, that's the search reality. If you still insist on having some say over what pops up, then you should register your own domain, start a blog and join as many social networks as you have time to manage. Writing for other blogs, or publications—even getting your name in print—will help those results climb. Or, you know, just get famous.

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