A digital footprint is the trail of data that you intentionally or unintentionally leave behind while using the internet. This includes social media posts, passwords, online purchases, IP addresses, and more. It is your digital footprint that, in part, reflects the reputation people perceive about you online.
Employers often use search engines to screen candidates, and a bad digital footprint can result in lost job opportunities. Red flags in a digital footprint include references to drug consumption, alcohol, weapons, profanity, bad grammar, and even mugshots.
To protect your digital footprint, you can research your name on search engines, use separate email addresses for professional and personal accounts, set up privacy settings on social media platforms, and refrain from oversharing online.
What is your digital footprint?
Your digital footprint is the trail of data you leave behind when you use the internet. It includes websites you visit, emails you send, and information you submit online. A digital footprint can track a person's online activities and devices.
Part of your digital footprint is public (available for most or everyone to see), but a large part is private to you and a few others (for example, emails, photos, or information). The release of one's personal digital footprint to the public can have disastrous effects on a person's online reputation.
Ways to track your footprint
Digital footprint examples include the following:
- The type of browser you are using (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc.)
- Your screen resolution
- Your IP address
- The kind of computer you are using
- Your operating system
- and more
Active vs. passive digital footprints
There are two main classifications of digital footprints: active and passive.
An active footprint can be defined as the intentional data trail that an individual leaves behind, such as:
- Sending someone an email (you intend for it to be seen by someone)
- Publishing a blog
- Posting on social media platforms (e.g., Linkedin, "X", Instagram) – a Tweet, Facebook status update, and an Instagram photo upload
- Filling out forms that involve subscriptions to emails or text updates
A passive footprint would be defined as the unintentional traces that an individual creates on the internet, such as:
- Using apps and websites that use geolocation to pinpoint a user’s whereabouts
- Browsing products and activities, which advertisers compile and analyze to profile you and provide targeted advertisements
Digital footprints aren't all bad. A positive digital footprint can improve your reputation and increase the occurrence of business opportunities.
How is your digital footprint used?
There are many reasons for us all to be concerned with the size of our digital footprint and how it represents us. The data we publicize can make us vulnerable to internet fraud (i.e., identity or data theft), unwanted solicitations from organizations and companies, or damage to our personal reputations. Search results for your name or your organization's name can be considered part of your digital footprint.
Have you ever gotten an email from someone you didn't give your email address to? Of course you have, they almost certainly used your digital footprint to find it.
For this article, we will focus on the latter and how our digital footprint is routinely considered in employment candidacy, company valuations, and even mortgage and loan applications.
77% of potential employers use search engines like Google to screen their candidates, and 35% of these employers admit that they eliminated a candidate from consideration based on the information they found online.
Red flags in your digital footprint
What type of content do employers least like to see in their candidate’s online profiles and history? Having any of the following on your digital footprint can turn off 45% to 85% of employers and hiring committees:
- References to illegal drug consumption
- Documented alcohol consumption
- References to weapons
- Usage of profanity
- Even bad spelling and grammar
Continuing on the same employment thread, it would be beneficial to highlight occasions when inappropriate and unfiltered behavior on social media has led to early termination. We have all come across a story like this once or twice, but there are countless examples of professionals losing their positions due to:
- Leaking confidential information, such as a Junior Marketing Executive prematurely sharing a new client before their official launch
- Writing prejudiced posts (e.g., racist or sexist), such as a Communications Director making an inexplicable connection between the AIDS epidemic and race
- Sharing improper content (e.g., nudity or drug usage), such as a public school teacher alluding to her intake of drugs on school grounds
- Complaining about or insulting your employer, clients, or stakeholders, such as a marketing contractor insulting clients with the use of expletives
All in all, our digital footprint clearly influences our professional opportunities.
How to protect your digital footprint
There are a few things you can do to protect your digital footprint:
- Be careful about what information you share online. Only share information that you are comfortable with becoming public.
- Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication. This will make it more difficult for someone to hack your accounts.
- Be aware of the privacy settings on the websites and apps you use. Make sure you are comfortable with the amount of information being collected about you by checking your settings.
- Use a privacy-focused browser, such as DuckDuckGo or Brave. These browsers will help to protect your privacy by blocking trackers and ads. Safari is pretty good too.
There are a few ways that we can begin ensuring our digital footprint does not share more information than we would like it to:
1. Set up an alert for notifications
First and foremost, we need to ascertain what information is circulating on the internet before we worry about managing and protecting our digital footprint. Most people would be surprised by the results – for example, a history of residential addresses and phone numbers, including the most current versions.
Once you identify the details that you are not comfortable with, you can start to remove negative content. Setting up an alert using Talkwalker or Google alerts facilitates future management by keeping us apprised of emerging new content.
2. Have different email addresses, so professional and personal accounts are not automatically associated with one another
Just like we keep our business and personal finances separate, we should take the same precautions with our digital entities. It has become commonplace for hiring managers to use tools that retrieve social accounts linked to your email address. By using a separate business email, you can add one more degree of separation between your personal social profiles and your corporate image.
Tip: Use catch-all emails to foil hackers
Different email addresses help in the case of a data breach as well. When bad guys hack a database, they look for combinations of email and passwords. If you use different email addresses, it makes it more difficult for hackers to match one account of yours with another. One way to do this is by setting up a "catch-all" email address if you have your own website domain. If your domain were Acme.com, you could set up email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, etc. You don't need to set up the actual email address, though, because if you set up a catchall, then all emails to any unknown address will be automatically redirected to the one you choose - like firstname.lastname@example.org or something similar.
Whether hiring committees eventually find your social profiles is another matter altogether, but having secondary email accounts introduces another step or hurdle for them to find the profiles.
3. Set up privacy settings on social media platforms (but don’t completely trust them)
Establishing privacy settings and regulating the people who can access your social media streams is beneficial in creating boundaries between private and public spheres.
Of course, a couple of caveats go with that statement. The first one would involve taking the time to understand the exact settings each platform holds to take advantage of them. Secondly, we should recognize that the settings are not infallible, as courts have ruled that private materials are “subject to discovery if they are relevant.”
4. Exercise caution in all online activities, and refrain from oversharing
The internet has an incredibly long memory, so only post content that aligns with the impression you want your family, bosses, and any other stakeholder to see. Hold back from the negative comments and questionable images – share things that promote a positive and courteous image online.
Also, don't text on Ambien. We're a reputation management agency... and well, just don't text on Ambien.
5. Use Googles Results About You
If some portion of your digital footprint has leaked online, it may be possible to remove that personal information from Google. Doing so does not remove content from websites, just Google search results. Use Google's Results About You to remove that information. You can read more about Results About You here.
What are the benefits of a positive digital footprint?
So, what is a digital footprint? Your digital footprint is a huge part of your personal brand or the curated reputation you create online. It is worth spending time ensuring your digital footprint accurately represents yourself and your business.
Having a positive digital footprint can lead to the following benefits:
- Increased opportunity: People are more likely to trust you and your brand, leading to better growth opportunities.
- Higher profits: Brands run by people with great online reputations tend to have an easier time selling their products. People will be likelier to purchase from you and recommend you to others.
- Less risk: People move with crowds. If your digital footprint is bad, it can perpetuate a negative sentiment that can be difficult to overcome.
- Gentler treatment: Likewise, if you have proven yourself to be a positive, beneficial part of the community, you may be able to recover from a scandal easier than someone who already has a negative digital footprint.
In an age where we can feel the reach of the internet and connectivity in every sector and sphere, it is prudent to maintain a positive digital footprint and ensure that no doors are closed to you for recklessness in online activities and interactions.