Who's Googling You?

Do you know what pops up when you Google yourself? You should, because odds are someone you work with or know does.

A study released last month by Harris Interactive and Dogpile, a search engine run by InfoSpace, shows that 23 percent of Internet users polled search for information on coworkers, employees, potential employees, bosses, or clients. The study was conducted online, and based on responses from 2266 people.

Googling has become a shorthand word for these types of searches since so many begin at the Google search engine. If you pop your own name in, you might find a Web site with older pictures showing an unfortunate hairdo. You may discover that someone more famous has your exact name. Or you might find nothing at all. But if you haven't done an online search for yourself lately, you ought to try it--somebody else probably has.

Adriane Aul, who works for an affordable-housing organization in Washington, D.C., is typical of the 23 percent who are searching. According to ComScore Networks, which studies consumer behavior, that number comprises more than 36 million Americans.

"I Googled myself [as well as] organizations and people," Aul admits. She says curiosity drove her to the search engine.

InfoSpace spokesperson Deb Hagen says the study backs up Aul's reasoning, listing curiosity as the search motivation for 71 percent of respondents. Hagen adds that about 85 percent of searchers look for personal contact information, like phone numbers or addresses.

Close-Ended Questions and Potential Problems

Unfortunately, the survey structure, which allowed respondents only to choose from a series of set answers, doesn't specify what people do with the information they glean. Hagen speculates the curiosity may be in relation to "researching the background of a job candidate."

Derek Bambauer, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, says the study creates many questions, such as what type of background information employers are looking for.

Searching for contact information on a client or employee is most likely harmless, Bambauer says. However, he adds that it opens the potential for discrimination by identifying an employee's political affiliations, sexual orientation, or health status. Although medical records are sealed to the public, some Web sites publish testimonies and e-mail addresses of cancer survivors, for instance.

"It may be a way to get answers to questions that employers aren't legally allowed to ask," Bambauer says.

Barbara Hoffman, who specializes in disability law at Rutgers and founded the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship, says cancer survivors shouldn't worry about being identified online.

"That's possible, but ... I would think that's a small percentage of people," Hoffman says of the possibility of identifying a cancer survivor through an Internet search.

However, she acknowledges, "As more and more information becomes available in different ways, the dangers of that increase."

More and More

You can expect the practice to grow, according to Hagen.

"We'd be very surprised if the number doesn't increase," she says. "Manage your personal information online to the best of your ability. It could affect your career."

Aul, though, is ahead of the game.

"I didn't find anything incriminating," she says about her self-Google.

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