What is a digital footprint? 

7 minute read

What is a digital footprint? 

A digital footprint is the impression you create on the internet through your online activity, which includes browsing, interactions with others, and publication of content. In other words, it is the trail of data – intentional and unintentional - you leave behind while surfing the internet.

When people think of a digital footprint they usually think "cookie". When a site you visit drops a "cookie" in your browser, it contributes to your digital footprint because it allows marketers, and others, to follow you around. But a digital footprint can include much more.

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

When you write, or type, you use a pattern unique to you. Writers have a "fingerprint". The words you use, your punctuation, the subject matter, all help to identify you. Combine that with IP address, cookies, and other identifiers and you can see how your digital "footprint" may be a lot larger than you thought. 

This trail of data consists of your posts on social media platforms, your “private” correspondences (i.e. email), the websites you visit, and even the records of your online purchases. 

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, Twitter, Instagram) – a Tweet, Facebook status update, and an Instagram photo upload
  • Filling out forms that involve subscriptions to emails or text updates 

This means that 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

What is a digital footprint

Why should you care? How is your digital footprint used?

There are a multitude of 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 of our personal reputations. Search results for your name or the name of your organizations can be thought of as a 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 the purposes of this article, we will be focusing 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? The answer is unlikely to surprise us. Having any of the following on your digital footprint can turn off 45% to 85% of employers and hiring committees:

  • The reference of illegal drug consumption
  • Documented alcohol consumption
  • References to weapons
  • Usage of profanity
  • Even bad spelling and grammar 
  • Mugshots

Continuing on the same thread of employment, it would be beneficial to also highlight occasions that 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:

All in all, our digital footprint clearly influences our professional opportunities. 

Online reputation management services - button

How to manage your digital footprint

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. Research your name on different search engines & set up an alert for future 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 that are yielded – for example, a history of residential addresses and phone numbers, including the most current versions of both.

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 new content that emerges. 

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 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 setup email addresses like united@acme.com or dropbox@acme.com, etc. you don't need to setup the actual email address though because if you setup a catchall, then all emails to any unknown address will be automatically redirected to one you choose - like catchall@acme.com 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, there are a couple of caveats that 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 of our 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. 

What are the benefits of a positive 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 to ensure your digital footprint is an accurate representation of 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, which can lead to better growth opportunities. 
  • Higher profits: Brands ran by people with great online reputations tend to have an easier time selling their products. People will be more likely to purchase from you, and to 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 had 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.