You've tweeted or posted on Facebook something stupid. Now what?
There are actions you can take before your embarrassing digital history becomes a spectacle.
You can even hire someone to help, as Internet damage control has become a booming industry.
American companies will spend $2.2 billion in 2012 for "reputation and presence management," according to Jed Williams, senior analyst for BIA/Kelsey, a media-consulting firm based in Virginia. By 2015, that sum will grow to $5 billion, he says.
At reputation.com, an image-fixing firm, businesses can pay several thousand dollars to "make sure customers see only the truth about your business by eliminating negative material from your top search results."
But here is a free version based on advice from industry experts, including Matt Ivester, a 28-year-old author of "lol ... OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying."
Step 1: Assess the damage.
Google yourself. If you're signed into a Google account, sign out or go to your search settings to turn off "Web History" or personal results. You want to see what others see when they Google your name.
Also search your name on Yahoo and Bing.
Ivester says to look at several pages of search results. And, he says, have someone whose opinion you trust also look at the search results.
You also can sign up for a free account at BrandYourself.com. It'll provide you with what a first page of a Google search on you will show, give you a score on how good or bad you look on that first page, and steps you can take to improve that score.
Step 2: Start deleting!
Go to your Twitter account. Delete the embarrassing stuff. Again, ask someone else to look at your tweets.
Step 3: Delete some more! And cull your "friends."
Also, go to "privacy settings" on Facebook. You can limit the audience for past posts and retroactively change the privacy setting on old posts.
And you can manually approve posts you're tagged in before they go on your profile.
After that, says Ivester, click on "Manage Friends List" and divide your new, culled list into family, friends, professional contacts and acquaintances.
Step 4: Widen the hunt and ask for mercy.
If family and friends have reposted your embarrassing stuff, ask them to delete it.
If you're dealing with some other website, send a polite request to remove your post, explaining why.
It is not true that everything stays on the Internet forever, he says, or that Google stores all old versions of a Web page.
Google does store -- cache -- a snapshot of a Web page as its Google "crawlers" search a website. But if a page no longer exists, it will eventually drop out of the Google cache.
To speed up getting that page removed, use one of these Google links, depending on whether you own the site that was cached, http://seati.ms/remove-cache1, or don't own the site, http://seati.ms/remove-cache2. Also, those who know about the Wayback Machine, which has archived 150 billion Web pages dating to 1996, will reasonably worry that postings might end up there.
According to Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of archive.org, your tweets and Facebook posts won't be archived unless somebody reposted them on a public site.
If you have blogged embarrassing material, and so far it hasn't been reposted, you can go to http://archive.org/about/exclude.php and find out how to remove your site from the Wayback Machine.
Step 5: Alert yourself.
Set up a Google alert about yourself, so you'll know when anything about you is posted. This way you might get ahead of controversy if a post does gain publicity.
In that case, says Polly Wood, reputation.com's senior team lead, special projects, you need "transparency" and "sincerity," like you really mean you're sorry you got caught with that idiotic tweet.
Step 6: Accentuate the positive.
"Put on YouTube a video of you doing something impressive, like giving some academic speech. Have a friend write positive blog posts about you," says Ivester.
Your hope is that the positive stuff is what people will see in that all-important first page of a Google search.
"And cross-link it all -- a Twitter account, Facebook, LinkedIn. That will drive up the search result rankings of the content you link to," says Ivester.
But there is cross-linking and cross-linking. Google will penalize you for using "link schemes," as the company explains http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66356
Wait a minute. Cross-link to your tweets? Wasn't that what got you in trouble in the first place?
Well, luckily there are apps for those with impulse-control issues.
One is LaterBro, and you can program it to wait to publish your post. That gives you time to read it in a more sober mood.
Contact Erik Lacitis at email@example.com. News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.