Digital Footprint 101: How to Claim Your Domain

digital footprint domainYour online presence is increasingly important as you build a reputation in your field of study and engage in the job search process. This presence can also be thought of as a digital footprint that you leave behind after engaging in online activities such as social media, blogging, and ePortfolios. How can you establish a professional digital footprint as an online student? One of the best ways is to create your own website using your name as the domain (i.e., URL, web address).

Mary Washington University (MWU) is one institution challenging its students to “gather the artifacts of your digital identity in a central place that you own and control.” A Domain of One’s Own is a project that began last year as a pilot and is now required of all MWU incoming freshmen in fall 2013. Students are provided with server space and guidance from project coordinators, but the goals are that these students will not only develop online portfolios, but also learn how to establish and administer a unique website that they can take with them after graduation.

The MWU approach differs from a more traditional model of student web sites in which institutions provide server space and tools that are tied to software licensed by the school and/or subject to termination once the student is no longer enrolled. When students graduate, moving this work can be time consuming and potentially costly. You can recreate what the MWU students are experiencing by establishing your own website via a web hosting service. There are a lot of options available and the process is easier to get started than you might think. Here are five basics steps to get the ball rolling.

Step 1: Find out if your name is available.

Use a site like WHOis.net or Instant Domain Search to find out if the web address you have in mind is already in use by someone else. In 2012, Business Insider reported that “there [were] 644 million active websites in the Internet,” with more new sites coming online every day, so finding a unique address can be a challenge.

When you search for domains you may find that some extensions (e.g., .com, .org, .biz, .net, .co, .info, .me) are available, while others are taken. The “.com” extension is the most common and considered by some to be more desirable, although increasingly unavailable. New extensions have been created over the years that provide additional possible addresses and more are in the works.

If you have a common name, ThinkTraffic.net recommends using one of the alternate extensions (e.g., info, .net, .me) or adding your middle initial. Most of the search and registration sites also provide suggested alternatives, if the name you want is not available. The screenshot below shows a recent search for a domain that includes my name. While the “.com” address shows as taken, other extensions and names are suggested.

digital footprint domain search

MWU suggests that students in its program pick a domain name that is some version of their own, noting “sometimes, picking a domain that reflects your own name will make it more likely that people will find it when they search for you on the Web.” But other name options are possible. If you decide not to use your own name MWU advises that you “think carefully about what address you want to use … pick a domain that reflects who you are, you can live with for a while, and isn’t something that will embarrass you” now or in the future.

Step 2: Register your domain.

While the MWU program does not charge students to register their websites or to host their sites in the school’s servers, if you are doing this on your own you can expect that there will be fees involved. There are multiple services available to both register and host your site, so shop around to find a deal that works for you (many are quite inexpensive). You can also look for reviews, like those on Hosting Review and PRchecker for side-by-side comparisons of costs, features, and support available, as well as feedback from other people who have already tried these services.

Note that some companies can give you a hard sell on additional products and features. I registered a new domain last week and received a phone call from the hosting company that same day with a pitch for additional services. Start with the basics and add items only as you need to and can afford to. You may decide initially, for example, that you just want to register your domain name for later use while it is still available to claim.

When you register a domain you provide information about yourself (i.e., name and address) that can be found using the WHOis.net “lookup” tool as part of public record. This tool comes in handy when you want to find out who owns a specific website, but also leaves you with a decision about what info you want to make available about yourself. Most web hosting services offer the option to make your information more private, for an additional fee. MWU provides this service to students and you may want to consider reviewing the privacy options provided when you register.

Step 3: Set up your site.

If you are not ready to move forward with web site development you may choose to stop at this point, after claiming your web address. However, having the address is just the beginning and it’s the creation of a site with content about you and your work that will have a positive impact when people search for your name. Without this step, it’s likely that searchers will encounter some kind of generic or “under construction” page when they click on your domain. Fortunately, there are several user- and budget-friendly options you can explore to create your own site.

Combine free and paid options

WordPress.com is a popular blogging platform with an intuitive interface and a large support community. Account set up is free and you can choose from a wide range of templates to get started and upload your information, links, and content. These accounts all end with “.wordpress.com,” and you may find that your name is available as a prefix (i.e. firstnamelastname.wordpress.com.” You can also register a separate (or custom) domain through WordPress for a fee (as described in the previous step) and use that with your free blog account. If you don’t have any experience with web design or programming, this can be a good way to maximize the benefits of both your own domain and a tool that offers free hosting and easy-to-use tools.

digital footprint WordPres

Redirect a URL

If you already have a robust website that doesn’t include your name in the address, you can redirect your new domain to the existing website as an easy “fix” if moving the site content isn’t an option for you. This may be free to do or involve an additional fee depending on where you have the domain registered. If you think this is something you might want to do, look for redirection functions as you compare the offerings from different hosting companies.

Create a Personal Landing Page

For those not yet ready to take the plunge into domain ownership, there are other alternatives for getting your name out there as part of your online presence or digital footprint. Platforms like About.me and Flavors.me allow you to develop a free homepage that includes a brief bio, images, and links to your websites and social media accounts. They are easy to use and allow you to create a custom URL within the system, which could include your name if it’s available. If you use LinkedIn and haven’t already created a custom URL for your profile, this is a good way to add your name to a searchable component of your account.

Step 4: Maintain your domain.

This step features adding and updating content to your site, whether it’s something new you are developing from scratch or a landing page you are redirecting your domain to. What should your site include? It can be as robust or basic as you want it to be, but should ideally represent you as a professional in your career field. Take a look at what other people are doing. Look for the digital footprints of your colleagues and classmates, alumni from your program, and leaders in your area of study. What do they post in terms of blogs, portfolios, and social media, and how they are taking a proactive approach through their use of different platforms and domains?

As Lifehacker states in an article about purchasing your own domain, “Don’t leave it to Google to decide what people see when they search for you.” Through your efforts to claim and maintain your own site, you take control of your online presence and what appears when someone conducts and Internet search for your name. Make it something that looks complete, polished, and up-to-date.

Step 5: Share your site!

Hopefully colleagues and recruiters will find your site on their own, but you can take this step to help spread the word. Add your domain to your professional social media profiles (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+), your email signature, resume heading, and even a business card. Make the connection where and when it makes sense to add a link.

This post just scratches the surface of personal website development and online identity management. There’s more to learn and additional decisions to make as you initiate the process and continue to develop your online presence throughout your career. These proactive steps will get you started on the road to claiming your domain as an integral part of your digital footprint.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog