ORM or Online Reputation Management is a fast growing segment in business and personal branding. Not surprising as the internet stores a wealth of information on you, your friends and family, customers and employer, really just about anybody.

People you meet socially or professionally for the first time will undoubtedly “google” you to see what they can find out – and for good reason.

A friend of mine was using a well-known dating site service. The purpose of the service is to match people with common interests, not to screen if someone is representing himself or herself accurately. That is up to you and if you are a good detective you can mitigate your risk.

As the story goes, the man who she is interested in lives about 60 miles away. They had communicated online for several weeks and were planning to meet in person. Then, she “googled” him.

Immediately, an article appeared about him. He had been involved in some nasty stuff involving children – I will spare you the details. She immediately sent him a message telling him she had reconnected with an old flame and promptly removed her profile from the site for several months.

Without the internet, she would have been at a severe disadvantage to learn about what kind of person she was meeting.

If you are job hunting, be certain that a prospective employer or recruiter is also checking all the sources I have listed below to see what they can learn about you.

As a business owner or employee, you may want to find out what people say about the company, again, these services may uncover some information. It is surprising what you can find out with a few clicks.

So, you find something. Is the negative press getting you a little upset? Consider yourself lucky to find out about it so you can correct poor customer service or other complaints being lodged against you or the company. It beats scratching your head wondering why your customers are fleeing, at least you have something to fix.

Here are some of the free ways you can check out yours or someone else’s online reputation.

Google Alerts provides an email or RSS feed service that will send you updates of any topic, company or person when news hits the internet. It is easy to set up and useful for tracking what your competitors are doing too!

Google News searches headlines from online news sources and displays them based on your preferences or try Yahoo News basic service search.

The next couple of tools are great for searching blogs and if you are a blogger, they should be at the top of your list.

Technorati is currently the largest blog index and search engine. Technorati Authority is another feature of their service that was introduced late last year – it measures your site’s standing and influence in the blog world. You can do a search on your name, blog or company to see what is written about you. To claim your blog, you will have to place a token they give you like this one, MWBZ74DFNC36, in a post.

Google Blogs will provide results from any search criteria you enter, searching their vast index of blogs. If you operate a blog, make sure it is getting pinged or follow the instructions on this site to submit it directly.

Another service for monitoring blog comment activity or other social networking conversation is Backtype. You can search by news, topics or name to find out what people are saying about it. The backtype wordpress plugin will pull comments from other social media sources and insert them into your comment section on your blog. I installed it on Elephants at Work and viola, all the comments from Twitter and other sources appeared.

You may not have a blog, but you like to post on discussion boards. Boardtracker lets you set up an alert to receive an email if any of the words or phrases you have identified show up in a discussion board. They have a plugin for several browsers – FireFox, Mozilla and Netscape located at the bottom of their page.

One of the relatively newer social media presences, Twitter, has their own search feature. You do not have to have an account to find out what people are saying – just type in your word or phrase.

Other social media places to monitor are LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace. While each of these networks could be classified as a closed or membership site, once someone has an account, they can search you. They may be able to access comments or questions in the discussion boards, see your update messages, view what your friends say on your wall or look at pictures you have posted.

Each of the sites has administrative settings to define who can see your information. However, if you have said something in a public forum or discussion group, you will not be able to limit readership.

The point of this article is not to scare you into becoming a hermit on the internet. There are many benefits to using social media to your advantage and boosting your online reputation. The way to do it might just surprise you- especially when I tell you what kind and how much information to share in my next article.