By KEVIN J. DELANEY
May 8, 2007; Page A1
Before Abigail Garvey got married in 2000, anyone could easily Google her. Then she swapped her maiden name for her husband's last name, Wilson, and dropped out of sight.
In Web-search results for her new name, links to Ms. Wilson's epidemiology research papers became lost among all manner of other Abigail Wilsons, ranging from 1980s newspaper wedding announcements for various Abigail Wilsons to genealogy records listing Abigail Wilsons born in the 1600s and 1700s. When Ms. Wilson applied for a new job, interviewers questioned the publications she listed on her résumé because they weren't finding the publications in online searches, Ms. Wilson says. (See Google results for Abigail Garvey and Abigail Wilson.)
So when Ms. Wilson, now 32, was pregnant with her first child, she ran every baby name she and her husband, Justin, considered through Google to make sure her baby wouldn't be born unsearchable. Her top choice: Kohler, an old family name that had the key, rare distinction of being uncommon on the Web when paired with Wilson. "Justin and I wanted our son's name to be as special as he is," she explains.
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. (See search results.)
For people prone to vanity searching -- punching their own names into search engines -- absence from the first pages of search results can bring disappointment. On top of that, some of the "un-Googleables" say being crowded out of search results actually carries a professional and financial price.
That's because people increasingly rely on search engines to find things they want to read, music they want to hear, people and companies they want to do business with. U.S. Internet users conduct hundreds of millions of search queries daily. About 7% of all searches are for a person's name, estimates search engine Ask.com. More than 80% of executive recruiters said they routinely use search engines to learn more about candidates, according to a recent survey by executive networking firm ExecuNet. Nearly 40% of individuals have used search engines to look up friends or acquaintances with whom they'd lost touch, according to a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Microsoft Corp.'s MSN unit.
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.
That's the case for a Los Angeles singer-songwriter who in 2003 abandoned his given name and began going by his initials, "AM." At the time, he was launching a solo career and hoped the approach might help him stand out.
But even as AM began to experience some success, he soon realized that fans had trouble finding him on the Web. Google returned an estimated 2.3 billion results for "AM" -- ranging from American Greetings Corp. (ticker symbol: AM) to AM radio stations and a site called I-Am-Bored.com -- but no links to the long-haired L.A. singer within at least the first 20 pages. (See results for AM, AM music and AM singer)
AM titled a first self-released album "AM" -- which didn't help. "How much bad luck can a guy have when he's just blindly coming up with his image and he has no idea what the impact will be down the line?" asks AM, who declines to provide his age or real name. AM believes the difficulty people had finding him using Google cost him fans and sales. "We're an immediate culture," he says. "If you can't find the guy in a couple of minutes, you're going to give up." Yesterday, AM's site suddenly began appearing on the first page of Google search results -- he says he has no idea why.
Searching for "Jason Smith" using Google recently turned up an estimated 36 million results, with none of the top ones leading to Jason Smith the 36-year-old software researcher at IBM's Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, N.Y. Even adding Mr. Smith's employer "IBM" or his graduate school "University of North Carolina," or its initials "UNC," doesn't help much. So a number of years back, Mr. Smith began using the initials of his middle name, McColm, to stand apart. (See results for Jason Smith.)
A search for "Jason McC Smith" brings up his page as the top link in search results. But there are still lots of people who don't realize they need to add that.
Some people in similar straits have used services that can help generate more prominent placement for them in search results. Krishna De, a personal branding and marketing consultant in Dublin, signed up with Ziggs Inc. in 2005 after she left a corporate career and set out on her own. At the time, results for the Hindu deity Krishna crowded out links to her site. Ziggs tries to get profile pages individuals create with it to appear high in search results, and for a $4.95 monthly fee buys ads that appear along search results on sites such as Google's to link to a client's profile. "If you're not found in search results, people start to wonder why," says Ziggs CEO Tim DeMello. (See results for Krishna De.)
Professional networking site LinkedIn Corp. says its members' profile pages often turn up high in Google search results when the users opt to make the pages accessible to the public. Marquis Who's Who, whose print directories were a go-to place for finding important people in pre-search-engine days, says it has been testing a service where individuals can search its online database of more than 1.3 million people, paying on a per-search basis.
"Any time you can distinguish yourself with a distinctive name or a distinctive characteristic that sticks out in people's minds, that's going to be the best solution," says Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer.
That's advice parents like Ms. Wilson have already taken to heart. Her husband rejected her original choice for their son, "Kohler," on the grounds that it would subject him to playground ridicule. The couple eventually chose "Benjamin." "I gave up trying to find a one-of-a-kind name and decided that as long as he did not share the name with a serial killer, I would settle," Ms. Wilson explains. (See results for Benjamin Wilson and Kohler Wilson.)
Attempting to counteract her own anonymity on the Web, Ms. Wilson now goes by "Abigail L. Garvey Wilson" when she publishes scientific papers. And recently she has been running names through search engines in anticipation of the arrival of her second child, a daughter due at the end of this month.
Stella Wilson seemed to do the trick -- a Google search turned up relatively few results -- but her husband shot it down. His counterproposal: "Sarah." (See results for Sarah Wilson and Stella Wilson.)
"I can't imagine how many Sarah Wilsons there are out there," says Ms. Wilson. "So I had to veto that one for sure." The Wilsons have two names in mind now but would rather not say what they are.
Write to Kevin J. Delaney at email@example.com