digital footprintMusician and actress Beyoncé Knowles – a star so bright she is mentioned by first name only – is among the world’s most powerful celebrities. She ranked fourth overall in Forbes’ top 100 of 2013, ahead of such notables as Madonna, Ellen DeGeneres, Simon Cowell, David Beckham and husband Jay-Z.

Power, or influence, opens plenty of doors, cultivates countless relationships and seals several deals. But does it do much for removing a digital footprint from the Internet? Google “Beyoncé, Super Bowl” and take a look at the first-page search results. You’ll have your answer.

Early last year, Beyoncé was powerless to have images from her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show pulled from a website. Her publicist politely requested via email that the site remove “unflattering” photos from a post praising the performance. Under no legal obligation to accommodate, the website instead brought attention to the email and series of pictures.

The news – and the images – went viral faster than a “Countdown” from three to one.

If Beyoncé, with all the resources at her disposal as a performer and businesswoman, couldn’t clear unwanted content from the web, imagine the chance small to mid-sized businesses stand in similar situations. It’s no wonder six in 10 respondents to GFI’s small business survey late last year said, if possible, they’d clear the Internet of all information about them with a snap of their fingers.

Businesses with a genie on the payroll: You’re in luck. Sarcasm aside, though, prevailing wisdom is data you wish would disappear is likely to always live somewhere. The key is to bury it six feet – or in web terms “three Google pages” – under. (In Europe, another plan is in effect for individuals, but it raises other questions.)

Findings from a 2013 study by online advertising network Chitika found that 91.5% of traffic from a Google search is generated by first-page listings. To say the drop-off is dramatic is an understatement: 4.8% (Page 2) and 1.1% (Page 3).

The adage “Out of sight, out of mind” certainly applies. You could say it’s the unofficial mantra of online reputation management firms hired to minimize digital footprints. It involves gaming Google, which assigns relevancy rankings to web pages based on, among other things, the number of links to them.

Or, as the New York Times’ 2011 article Erasing the Digital Past explained:

“To trick the search engines, these (online reputation) managers employ programmers who create dummy Web sites that link to a client’s approved list of search results. The more links, the higher the approved sites rank.”

The process takes time, money and, clearly, a bit of trickery. There is no quick fix. So what’s the solution for individuals and businesses without big departments and deep pockets? These suggestions may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised:

For individuals, be smart about how you use the Internet – social media and chat rooms, in particular.

For businesses, be proactive and communicate. If possible, implement an email archiving solution with the power to extract morsels of data from corporate email; it may offer untapped insight into employee and customer thinking. Understanding others’ perception of your company can help you build a better business – and image.

What if, despite your best efforts, you still find yourself in a situation like Beyoncé? Find the silver lining: Show the online world you’re a “Survivor.”

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