In the digital age, professional connections are no longer made with a handshake, they begin with a search engine. First impressions are now shaped by the digital footprint you leave online, long before you meet someone in person.

In fact, there’s a good chance the last comment, photo or post you left online will have been picked up by a search engine and archived somewhere within the depths of the Internet. When you consider search engines are the first place people go to search for information you can see that understanding your online reputation, as well as the techniques to protect, manage and enhance it has never been more important.

This post looks at five things you can do to manage your online reputation and ensure when a prospective employer, client or partner looks you up on Google, they only see your best side.

1. Understand

Discovering what websites the Internet equates with you is the first part of understanding your online reputation. Begin with a simple search of Google, Bing and Yahoo for your name. In many instances this will return too many irrelevant searches. If this is the case, use Boolean search and enter your name plus the industry you work in. These results are the primary layer of your online reputation and the one people are likely to see first.

But there are deeper layers of equal importance. People search engines like 123people.com and PeekYou.com offer a detailed understanding of your digital footprint as they search for people’s names, rather than the whole web. These results are insightful and need to be understood as they offer a glimpse of what people will find if they conduct a more thorough online search of you.

Whether your initial search results are good, bad or ugly, set your privacy settings to private, delete dormant online profiles and treat what you do online as public, permanent and immediate.

2. Continue to listen

As part of good online reputation management you need to be listening out for where your name is mentioned. A great place to start is signing up for Google Alerts. This is a free tool that sends notifications to your inbox of relevant mentions online. The alerts will enable you to continually understand your online reputation, but also bring to your attention potential issues, as well as opportunities to engage, network and create.

3. Be Social

One of the most effective ways to boost your online reputation is by using social media. The reason being is Google tweaked its search algorithm to include social media; making blogs, Twitter, Linked In, Delicious, YouTube, Flickr and public social networks the new SEO. Create accounts for the social media most relevant for your industry and make use of biographies and descriptions with appropriate keywords. Social media generates naturally acquired back-links, social recommendations and enhancements that score highly on Google, so make sure you’re being social.

4. Engage in conversations

Twitter is a great platform to discover news, start conversations and network. However, Twitter Search only tracks 4 days worth of Tweets. This means the conversations you have on Twitter may enhance your online reputation in the short term, but leave little lasting impact. You should continue to Tweet, but use tools like Listorious, Klout or Edelman’s (disclosure: my employer) Tweet and Blog Level to identify online influencers and engage with them on popular blogs, news sites and forums – all of which score highly on search and will improve your online reputation.

5. Create content

There is no better way to improve your online reputation than by creating content such as a blog, podcast, video or photo album. Provided it is tagged with keywords, along with a SEO-friendly title and relevant description, it will score highly when someone types your name into Google. Blogging in particular is an effective way to document your thoughts, network and create a community of fans. There is also offline benefits to creating content as people recognise that it takes planning, creativity and commitment.

I’m adamant these are three attributes every prospective employer, client or partner would value in a professional connection.

What tips do you have to manage your online reputation?