Every email, post, photo and click you make online leaves a trail. Even by reading this article, you’re adding to your ever-growing string of breadcrumbs online. It’s permanent, it follows you for life and it’s not going anywhere—it’s your digital footprint.
You may be wondering, “What is a digital footprint? And why should I care about it?”
Whether or not your information is shared intentionally, it’s being gathered by advertisers, employers and companies from which you shop. This information is called your digital footprint—and it’s becoming more important than ever in today’s digital economy. While there’s no official definition of the term “digital economy,” it can be summed up as as the entire ecosystem built from our online connectivity. In this newfound era, your digital footprint can no longer be ignored.
To help you understand what that means for you, we spoke with a handful of online experts to learn more about digital footprints. Learn from their expertise and see what you need to know about managing your online presence.
What is a digital footprint?
First, the answer to your question: What is a digital footprint?
“Your digital footprint is anything that is about you or put out by you online,” says media and personal branding consultant Brian Harrington.
That includes social media, your own website, articles about you or written by you. It spans all time and doesn’t just include what’s found at the top of the page—it can be information that is both easy and hard to find, he explains.
Take note that your digital footprint isn’t just things you actively put online like photos or Facebook status updates—it’s your information that is being scraped from more passive online activities as well.
“Your digital footprint is data that’s created through your activities and communication online. This can include more passive activities, such as if a website collects your IP address, as well as more active digital activities, such as sharing images on social media,” says Natalie Athanasiadis, owner of Digital Visibility Group Melbourne.
“You should keep in mind that anything you place online, whether text or images, has the potential to be available online forever.”
Forever is a long time, which means it’s all the more important to keep on top your digital footprint.
How is your digital footprint used?
Your digital footprint is often used to obtain personal info about you, such as demographics, religion, political affiliations or interests. Information could be gathered using cookies, which are small files websites store on your computer after your first visit to track user activity.
Cookies also allow you to hold items in a shopping cart, store preferences or login information and make personalized suggestions based on your location or interests. Your digital footprint is used by advertisers to target you with customized ads. For example, if you look at a pair of shoes online, you may later see ads for those shoes or similar items.
Your digital footprint is also used by employers—both current and prospective. It is especially important to care for your digital footprint if you’re job hunting, as Googling is now a central part of the hiring process.
“An online background check by recruiters and employers is a common practice these days,” says Mehmood Hanif, a digital marketer for PureVPN. “In worst-case scenarios, individuals could lose their job offer if employers come across something inappropriate.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for you to be proactive in managing your digital footprint. Take a look at some of the following tips.
How can you manage your digital footprint?
So how can you manage your digital footprint? Here are a few places to start:
- Google yourself: Take inventory of what’s out there. Search for your name every few months, so you’re cognizant of the information others have access to.
- Set up Google alerts: Hanif recommends setting up a Google alert for your name. The tool will then send you occasional alerts of every post that has your name on it.
- Protect your personal data: Don’t disclose your personal address, phone number, passwords or bank card numbers. Consider using a nickname instead of your real name.
- Keep login info under lock and key: Never share any of your usernames or passwords with anyone.
- Think before you post: Never put a temporary emotion on the permanent internet. Anger is temporary; online lasts forever. Pause before you post: Think twice, post once, advises Sue Scheff, online defamation survivor and author of Shame Nation.
- Nix the pics: Any photo you post could be dug up some day. Limit your sharing of questionable images. Fifteen minutes of humor is never worth a lifetime of potential humiliation, adds Scheff.
Benefits of a digital footprint
When done wrong, your digital footprint can be detrimental, but it’s not all doom and gloom. When they’re done right, a digital footprint can provide you with a great first impression. You’re now aware that employers are following your trail, so take advantage of it. There are many ways you can leverage your digital skills to land a job.
“A strong online presence, or digital footprint, can be a career asset in today's competitive job market. Many employers are performing online searches—in addition to reviewing resumes and cover letters—in an attempt to learn about prospective hires, including their interests, industry involvement and, more important, their ability to market themselves effectively,” says Diane Domeyer, career expert and executive director of The Creative Group.
“If hiring managers are impressed by the content they find, like thought-provoking commentary or links to industry articles, they may be more apt to reach out to individuals for an interview. On the other hand, a lack of activity can be a turn-off.”
With the digital economy now driving much of the workforce, reinforcing your technical prowess with a strong digital presence can be helpful to job seekers.
“Your digital footprint is now a reality of life. If you want to do anything big in the world, you're going to have to understand how to craft your footprint and use it,” says Harrington. He suggests individuals control the narrative through personal branding—have a theme or style woven throughout your social media and website. This will make it easier for readers to tell what content is verifiably from you and what could have been put out by someone else about you.
Leave a strong footprint
Now that you know what a digital footprint is, take the proper steps to cultivate it. The digital world isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—so think of it as a lifelong development. Take advantage of the platform to present yourself in a good light and show off your best qualities. After all, you never know who will be looking in our newfound digital economy.
Be sure to check out our infographic, “Is Your Online Brand Helping or Hurting Your Career?” to learn more about how your digital presence can create a lasting impression online.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in August 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.