Google+

BBC Capital

Career Coach

Standing out when your name is John Smith

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Distinguishing yourself online is critical to a successful job search and future, career experts say. But what if your name is, say, John Smith? Standing out on the web is a lot harder when you have a common name.

A LinkedIn search of the name “John Smith” yields 36,761 results, while Google results include a whopping 197 million entries. The result: it takes a lot of work for a potential employer researching you online — and for you to stand out from the crowd.

If a recruiter has to work too hard to figure out which John Smith is you, he or she might just move on to the next qualified candidate. In today’s ultra-social, web-heavy job hunt, how can you avoid name confusion and leave no room for a prospective employer to pause after a Google or LinkedIn search?

For starters, you need to win the results game.

“Google is just a search engine, searching for your name or your ‘real estate’ online,” wrote Ireland-based branding expert Ted Clohosey. “The more real estate you own — the more places your name is mentioned and the more active you are contributing to different media, for example — the more likely you’ll be found.” 

And the better the chances your information will rank on page one of Google’s results. Being on page one of the results is the equivalent of owning real estate on Fifth Avenue in New York or Bond Street in London, according to Clohosey.

“These are the most expensive retail streets: stores there get the best customers and make the most profits because there is lots of traffic up and down these streets. [They] pay big rents because they want their brand to be exclusively positioned,” he wrote. “You want people who search for you to get that same feeling about your positioning.  Failure to do so will have you in the Google equivalent of languishing on some back street.”

The higher you rank in results, the more likely you’ll get noticed, according to Southern California-based Chapman University social media professor Niklas Myhr.

If you aren’t one of the first 10, a recruiter might think you are someone else or get an unfavourable impression that you are not even competitive in your own name brand space and be left wondering “how could you then help a company build its brand,” said Myhr.

There are several things can you do to get to that coveted page one.

Add a letter or two

“If you want to stand out online, you need to create a longer user name on social networks and for your personal website,” said Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success. Use your middle initial or something tied to your industry or profession in order to give yourself a more unique identity.

For folk musician John Smith of Trampealeau, Wisconsin, this approach worked. When it came time to pick a domain name for his business, it came as no surprise that johnsmith.com was already taken. But johnsmithmusic.com wasn’t. Smith chose it, and it was clearly a smart move. Google “John Smith” and his page comes up fourth on the first page of results.

“Seems any little twist can help drive traffic to one's site,” said Smith.

Get the word out

Once you decide the name or phrase you are going to use, register it on popular social networks that tend to rank higher in Google searches, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Quora, suggested Schawbel. You might also consider buying your own domain name. Even if you don't intend to use it, it will stop others from setting up a web site using your chosen name and diluting online search results for you.

And keep it consistent, so there isn’t any confusion. Just make sure whatever name or phrase you use is one you’ll want to stick with for the long haul. Otherwise, you’ll have to start all over again establishing an online identity.

Separate from the pack

Take advantage of LinkedIn’s headline and summary section, suggested Lisa LaRue, a London-based career coach and owner of career development consultancy CareerWorx. Include a concise description of your professional identity.

“[That way] people can quickly distinguish you from others with the same name,” she wrote. “You need to ensure that you have established your own personal brand effectively.”

Make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete and includes a professional looking headshot, according to Chapman University’s Myhr. Most importantly, get recommendations from coworkers, present and past. “You can never have too many,” he said.

When it comes to crafting your summary, ask yourself the following question after each sentence: “Could this be applied to anyone on LinkedIn?” If the answer is yet, hit “delete” and start again. If it’s in your summary, it should come from “your industry, your background, your experience,” said Myhr.

Keep going

It’s not enough to just establish your identity online. You also need to maintain and expand it. If it’s Google you’re concerned about, then focus on Google-owned entities, such as YouTube and Google+.

“Google ranks items within [its] stable, so posting videos on YouTube or being active on Google+ helps rank you in the eyes of Google,” said Clohosey, who suggested uploading numerous professional images to Google+. “These will show up when someone types in your name. The more professional images you have there, the better.”

Blogging regularly can also help you get found — and remembered. “It is good for search engine optimization, helping you to be on page one, but also it demonstrates that you are an authority in your chosen field,” said Clohosey.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.