Should you pick an unusual name for yourself — so you’ll be more Googleable?

There’s a fascinating piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about how tech-savvy parents are picking unusual names for themselves and their kids — so that they’ll be more googleable. The parents, as the story points out, are aware that search engines dominate modern epistemology: If you can’t be found on Google, you don’t exist. says that 7% of all its searches are for personal names; meanwhile, 80% of executive recruiters do an online search for applicants’ names, and 40% of people say they’ve used search engines to hunt down long-lost acquaintances. Women who acquire a super-common last name when they marry find that they vanish from the googleosphere.

So, as the Journal reports:

In the age of Google, being special increasingly requires standing out from the crowd online. Many people aspire for themselves — or their offspring — to command prominent placement in the top few links on search engines or social networking sites’ member lookup functions. But, as more people flood the Web, that’s becoming an especially tall order for those with common names. Type “John Smith” into Google’s search engine and it estimates it has 158 million results. [snip]

Some people have taken measures to boost their visibility online, including creating listings in professional directories and paying companies to help them appear more prominently in search results. Parents-to-be routinely plug baby names into search engines to scout out the online competition. Some actors and musicians weigh the impact of less unique stage names.

The big problem with the article, though, is that it never mentions the most screamingly obvious and generally bulletproof way of ensuring you have lots of Google juice: Blogging. Today’s search engines reward people who have online presences that are well-linked-to. So the simplest way to hack Google to your advantage is to blog about something you find personally interesting, at which point other people with similar interests will begin linking to you — and the upwards cascade begins.

This is precisely one of the reasons I started Collision Detection: I wanted to 0wnz0r the search string “Clive Thompson”. I was sick of the British billionaire and Rentokil CEO Lord Clive Thompson getting all the attention, and, frankly, as a freelance writer, it’s crucially important for anyone who wants to locate me — a source, an editor, old friends — to be able to do so instantly with a search engine. Before my blog, a search for “Clive Thompson” produced a blizzard of links dominated by the billionaire; I appeared only a few times in the first few pages, and those were mostly just links to old stories I’d written that didn’t have current email addresses. But after only two months of blogging, I had enough links to propel my blog onto the first page of a Google search for my name. Sometime soon afterwards I moved to the #1 spot, and these days a search for the single word “clive” — an extremely common name outside the US — produces my blog as the fifth result on the first page. Woo hoo!

Okay, I’ll stop the gratuitous boasting. But the question remains: Why didn’t the Journal piece talk about this? Possibly because the writer had unconsciously adopted the corporate/advertising view of the Internet, which is that, dammit, there’s got to be some way to throw money at this problem and automatically vault our company’s crapola product to the center of the nation’s attention, right? Corporate interests generally hate Google, because they cannot easily buy their way to prominence. Not that it stops them from trying: That’s why there’s an industry in “search engine optimization” — which the Journal duly namechecks — and, of course, splogs and spambots. But the truth is that the only way to get really good, durable google juice is to work for it. There’s no magic solution. You certainly can’t just sit around and expect the search engines to love you because you’re, like, awesome.

I particularly like the fact that whenever someone bemoans the ungoogleability of those with unduly-common names, they use the example of “John Smith.” Hey, all you John Smiths: You’re doomed! Give up! You’ll be drowned in a tsunami of hits for the historical John Smith of Pocahontas fame, right?

Yet if you actually do a Google search for John Smith, you find that indeed, the top few hits are for the famous John Smith, as well as the current UK politician John Smith. But you’ll also find that seventh hit on the first page is for … John Smith, a British folk musician.’ This isn’t a guy with a big ad budget, or even, as far as I can tell, any advertising budget at all; he sells through CD Baby, which indicates to me that he’s totally indie. But clearly he’s amassed a lot of Google juice, and it’s probably because he’s made a few smart moves that are likely to attract links: He offers plenty of samples of his music, as well as several completely free MP3s, and has a guestbook for comments. I bet if he added a blog to his site he could kick himself up even higher on the Google rankings.

The problem with this solution to Google anonymity is precisely that it requires so much work. As people noted in my thread on Radical Transparency a few months ago, the Web and the blogosphere privilege the time-rich, which means they’re hardly meritocratic. I regularly get swamped with work and don’t blog for weeks at a time, which I personally hate — when I’m not blogging it feels like a juicy part of my brain has shut down, and I generate far fewer useful ideas; but it also terrifies me because I know that I’m probably losing Google juice. I’m rarely time-rich.

On the other hand, I prefer a world that gives some advantage to the time-rich over one that reserves all the advantages to the money-rich.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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