The majority of adult internet users (57%) now use search engines to find information about themselves online, up from 47% in 2006.
Internet users have become increasingly likely to use search engines to check up on their digital footprints. Since our last survey in 2006, search engines have vastly expanded their reach and now include everything from images and videos to real-time results on Twitter.
In the September 2009 survey, 57% of adult internet users said they had used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online. That marks a significant increase since 2006 when 47% of adult internet users said they had searched for results connected to their names online. However, that growth is more modest when compared with the 25-point increase that occurred between 2001 and 2006 (when self-searching jumped from 22% to 47%).
What has not changed over the years are some of the core demographic trends with this activity. Male and female internet users are equally likely to use a search engine to monitor their digital footprints. And internet users under the age of 50 are consistently much more likely to be self-searchers when compared with older users. Likewise, those with higher income and education levels are much more engaged than those in lower socioeconomic groups when it comes to monitoring digital footprints. In the latest survey, 70% of internet users with a college degree had conducted a search for their name compared with just 43% of those with a high school degree or less.
Adults under the age of 50 are still more likely than older adults to monitor their digital footprints.
Internet users under the age of 50 consistently surpass older online adults in their self-searching habits. In 2009, fully 65% of young adult internet users ages 18-29 said they had searched for results connected to their name online, up from 49% in 2006. Likewise, 61% of internet users ages 30-49 said they were self-searchers, up from 54% in 2006.
By comparison, less than half (47%) of internet users ages 50-64 have used a search engine to check up on the results tied to their name (up from 39% in 2006). About the same number, 45% of those ages 65 and older, use search engines to look up results connected to their names. However, that number represents significant growth since 2006, when just 28% of users age 65 and older had conducted a personal name search.
The 2009 survey included interviews with both English-dominant and Spanish-dominant Hispanic adults. Self-identified Hispanic internet users in this sample were significantly less likely than white internet users to use a search engine to find results connected to their names online; just 40% of Hispanic internet users said they had done this, compared with 60% of white internet users. Half of African-American internet users (52%) said they had searched for results about themselves—a number that is not significantly higher or lower than other groups.
Most self-searchers continue to be casually curious; few monitor their footprints with great regularity.
Although there has been significant growth in the self searching population overall, most internet users do not regularly rely on search engines to monitor their digital trails. Among the 57% of internet users who are self-searchers, few make a steady habit of monitoring their online presence. In 2006, 74% of self-searchers said that they had used a search engine to look up their own name only once or twice. In 2009, 78% of self-searchers reported the same limited level of engagement. Just 2% say they use a search engine to look up information about themselves on a regular basis, and 19% say they do so every once in awhile.
Men who follow their digital footprints using search engines do so more often than women. One in four (26%) male self-searchers checks on results at least every once in awhile compared with 17% of female self-searchers who do the same. Interestingly, young adults who self-search largely say they have done so only once or twice (84% say this), while older self-searchers are somewhat more engaged. Three in four (75%) self-searchers ages 50-64 have checked up just once or twice, while 25% do so at least every once in awhile.
One in five (20%) adult internet users say they have used other websites to look up their name and see what information is available about them online.
While mainstream search engines are the starting point for nearly every kind of online query, those who monitor their digital footprints also employ site-specific searches on social media sites like Facebook and Flickr. While Google or Bing may cache the latest publicly available blog post that mentions your name, you may need to search elsewhere to see semi-public information that circulates within your personal social network. For the first time, we asked about these other searches, and found that 20% of online adults use other websites and internet services to look up their own name to see what information they find.
However, there is almost complete overlap between those who use those who use general search engines and those who search elsewhere. If you don’t use search engines to check up on your digital footprints, you most likely don’t check anywhere else. Looking at those who said yes to either question only increases the size of the self-searching group by one percentage point; 58% of adult internet users have searched online for information about themselves—either by using a search engine or conducting searches on other sites.
Online men are more likely than online women to search for information about themselves on other sites such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube (23% vs. 18%). Again, internet users under the age of 50—who are bigger users of social media sites—are more likely than older users to conduct searches on these kinds of sites. One in four users in the under-50 group do so, compared with one in seven in the over-50 group.
When people search for themselves, the most prominent results are usually about someone else with the same name.
As we noted in the first Digital Footprints report, people can have very different experiences with online reputation management depending on whether they have a unique name or one shared with others. Likewise, people can become exceptionally visible in the search results connected to their names for a range of reasons—because of the public nature of their job, their contributions to a blog or their personal involvement in a newsworthy event, for good or for ill.
Most who are motivated to look do find some relevant results. Among those who conduct personal name searches, the majority (63%) say they find at least some relevant material connected to their name. By comparison, 35% of self-searchers say their queries do not yield any relevant results.
Indeed, most people enjoy some level of “privacy through obscurity” online. We asked self-searchers about the critical first page of search results that popped up when they queried their name, and how prominently their own name was in the results. When self-searchers query their name using a search engine, 62% say the first page of results is mostly about someone else with a name very similar or identical to theirs. Just 31% of self-searchers say that most of the results on that critical first page are actually about them.
Those with highly-ranked results could appear in a more prominent position for a variety of reasons, some of which may have to do with their job. Looking at the 31% of self-searchers who say that the first page of search results contains material that is mostly about them, a much higher percentage than average say that they are required by their employer to market themselves online (27% compared with 12% of all employed internet users).
Interestingly, while young adults are more likely to have posted a wide range of personal digital content online, the results connected to their real name are far more likely to be hidden slightly deeper in the haystack. Three in four (74%) self-searching young adults say that the first page of search results for their name primarily contains content about someone else. That compares with 62% of self-searchers ages 30-49, 51% of those ages 50-64 and 48% of those ages 65 and older.
The likelihood that someone will appear prominently in the first page of search results also tracks closely with education, but not income. More than one-third (37%) of self-searchers with a college degree say relevant results about them dominate the first page compared with just 21% of self-searchers with a high school degree or less.
Internet users employ a multitude of identities online, and many avoid using their real names.
While some of the content associated with our names online—such as our address, telephone number or real estate transactions—is made available without our direct participation, we also actively make choices about claiming authorship of the material we voluntarily share online.
Most internet users (54%) now count themselves among these content-contributing masses. They post comments, queries and other information online through blogs, social networking sites and other venues. Among those who have posted this kind of material, 45% say they usually post information using their real name. By comparison, an almost equal number (41%) say they usually post content under a username or screen name that people associate with them. This affords some level of obscurity for content creators because a viewer would have to know a user’s screen name in order to associate content with him. Just 8% say they usually post content anonymously.
Female content contributors are more likely than male contributors to say they usually post content online under their real name (49% vs. 41%). Likewise, male contributors are more likely to routinely employ a screen name when posting; 47% of men who post content usually do so with a username compared with 36% of women. However, there are no significant differences between the sexes when it comes to posting content anonymously.
Interestingly, social networking users are significantly more likely than non-users to say that they usually post content online using their real name. Half (49%) of SNS users say they usually share material using their real name, compared with 37% of non-SNS users. Similarly, they are less likely than non-SNS users to say that they typically post content anonymously. Just 5% of SNS users say they usually post comments, queries or other information anonymously, while 15% of non-SNS users report the same.
One in four employed adults says their company has policies about how they present themselves online.
Employed adults are more likely than in the past to say that they work for a company that has policies about how they present themselves on the internet, such as what they can post on blogs and websites or what information they can share online. One in four (25%) employed adults say their company has a policy like this, up from 20% in December 2006. However, while 67% of employed adults say their workplace does not have such a policy, another 8% say they don’t know.
Looking at employed internet users, 27% now work for an employer that has policies about how they present themselves online—such as what they can post on blogs and websites or what information they can share about themselves. That compares to 22% who reported the same in 2006.
Those with higher levels of education and income are far more likely to say they are employed in workplaces that have these policies about self-presentation online. One in three (32%) college grads say they work for companies that have rules about how they present themselves on the internet, compared with just 18% of high school grads. Likewise, 29% of employed adults living in households earning $75,000 or more per year work for companies with such policies, compared with just 18% of those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year.
Just over one in ten (12%) employed internet users are “public personae” who say they need to market themselves online as part of their job.
Those who need to make information available about themselves online in order to market themselves for their job make up a unique segment of the internet universe. These “public personae” now make up 12% of the employed adult population, up slightly from the 10% who said they were required to market themselves online in 2006.
In contrast to 2006, employed men are now considerably more likely to be in the position of having to promote themselves online. While 15% of employed men say they have a job that requires them to self-promote online, just 7% of employed women say this. This role of self marketing is also somewhat more common among younger adults; employed adults ages 18-29 are more likely than those ages 50-64 to say they have a job that requires self-promotion online (15% vs. 9%).
However, once again, education stands out as one of the most important indicators. Fully 19% of employed college grads say that they have to market themselves online for their job, compared with just 6% of high school grads.
Public personae stand out in a number of ways when it comes to reputation management online:
They are far more active in monitoring search results connected to their names; 84% of public personae use search engines to check up on their digital footprints, compared with just 55% of other employed internet users.Among those who search for themselves, 44% do so at least every once in awhile, compared with 20% of other employed internet users
They enjoy a higher ranking in search results; 47% of public personae who self-search say that the first page of results is mostly about them, compared with just 28% of other employed internet users.
They are bigger users of social media; 73% of public personae have created a social networking profile compared with 46% of other employed internet users. Likewise, 36% say they have used Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves, compared with 18% of other employed internet users. And almost one in three (29%) are bloggers, while just 11% of other employed internet users have created or worked on a blog.
They are more likely to request the removal of things that others post about them online. One in five (22%) public personae say they have asked someone to remove information about them that was posted online, including things like photos or videos, while just 6% of other employed internet users have made such a request.