Have you Googled yourself lately? If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase “vanity search,” it refers to an Internet search of yourself. What comes up when you go to Google and type in your name? Are there three, 3,000,000, or zero results? Do the results surprise you, or are you confident you know what’s going to surface when you hit the enter key? These questions may seem strange, but having some kind of Internet presence as a freelancer is becoming an increasingly important networking requirement not just socially, but also professionally.

As I sit in front of my computer ready to email or call a new client—designer, consultant, artistic director, entrepreneur—I can’t help but wonder how I should address this person. What will be the best way to reach out to this client so that she is responsive? Instead of trying to guess how this person works or what kind of projects she normally undertakes, it just makes good sense for me to simply Google her to do a little research in advance.

In the best case scenario, the client will have a website that tells me exactly what I want to know. Hopefully, I find information about a client’s past projects and what other people may have thought or commentary about the work of others through networking sites. I may even find out some of a client’s extra-curricular interests which may help us relate better while trying to forge that ever-important trust we need to form a solid business or artistic bond. Think of it as virtually going into someone’s office and striking up a conversation about sailing based on the pictures of boats hanging on the walls.

Alternately, I can perform a search for a new colleague and come up with absolutely nothing. This is where I run into a problem. If I am trying to find information about a potential client, and there is nothing about them online, it becomes infinitely more difficult for me to consider the person’s viability or, worse yet, it can become harder for me to take them seriously as a professional. Reputations are important in any industry, but I think many of us will agree that they play a particularly important role in entertainment because this is such a small industry. I find that, for younger professionals, what Google does or doesn’t say about a person could have a serious impact on professional relationships. I’m not trying to imply that everyone out there should meticulously catalog their lives through blogging, social networking, or personal websites, but if there are few or absolutely zero results returned in a search of a name, it starts to bring into serious question her legitimacy in the field.

Even for the plugged-in web-savvy crowd, there are more possibilities out there than you may have realized. Getting involved with forums related to your area of expertise can provide exposure not necessarily available through normal channels. Check out Sceno:graphy, a site devoted to designers sharing online portfolios and trading knowledge through articles and forums. Or take a look here at livedesignonline.com, where this magazine has its own forum. These sites have hundreds, if not thousands of members from all walks of the entertainment industry; if you become involved enough to be seen as an authority on a topic, you may even be presented with opportunities that may never have surfaced otherwise without that online networking ability. And let’s face it, in this economy, even those with steady jobs need to be doing as much as possible to make themselves irreplaceable in their positions. Why not make yourself known as an expert in your field so that you’re doing everything in your power to make sure you’re always in demand?

I know there are people out there who will disagree with me on this.I am sure that there are those of you who have been in the field for many years and who already know everyone else or, better yet, have a reputation that precedes you. All of this may seem completely extraneous, but I’d argue that, even for you, managing your online identity is important. At some point, if you don’t create something to tell the world what you’ve done with your career, there’s a good chance someone else will, and at that point, you lose control over authoring your own identity. It’s certainly true that someone could put something out there regardless of whether you have your own web space or not, but at least if you publish your own work or ideas, you don’t have to depend on—or worry about—what someone else might have to say about you. Think of it as further branding yourself and managing that brand appropriately.

Thankfully, for those of you who might not yet have your own virtual real-estate, there are a multitude of options. The most obvious route is creating your own web page or hiring someone to make one for you, to publish your digital portfolio, or share your philosophies on life, the industry, or whatever else might be relevant. Ultimately, while I think there is a certain amount of inherent professionalism in having your own domain and telling people they can contact you at yourname@yoursite.com, there are plenty of alternatives that can boost your presence. Social networking sites like Facebook are great ways to let people know what you’re about both professionally and personally; these sites will publish as little or as much about you as you’re interested in sharing, but they allow people to connect with you and find out about what you do or what your interests are. Sites like LinkedIn will do the same thing except they are much more concentrated on career networking and are minimally “social.” Twitter (my new obsession) takes on micro-blogging by allowing users to post updates 140 characters at a time, thereby creating a kind of meta-stream of a person’s activities.

The long and short of it is that, in 2009, it’s not a difficult task to put your name and your career out where others can see it, and if you’re responsible about what you publish (let me stress that, because someone, somewhere will find what you post), you can only benefit in the end and make your potential new business and artistic endeavors that much stronger. So if you haven’t yet, I suggest you Google yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Larry Zoll is a freelance lighting and marketing professional specializing in theatrical lighting, themed environments, and control systems. You can reach him at larry@zolldesign.com.