Germany's job market is known for being highly competitive and highly qualified, so employers are always looking to weed out candidates faster and more efficiently.
According to a study by the country's digital association Bitkom, almost half of German companies are now expediting application processes by checking aspiring employees' social media profiles – from professional networking on LinkedIn to personal posts on Facebook, Instagram and the like.
What they find allows them to rule out every seventh candidate based purely on their online presence. "Social network profiles are often more meaningful than an application," said Bitkom chief executive Bernhard Rohleder.
But what employers turn up cannot always be controlled purely through privacy settings. Perhaps your account was tagged in someone else's publicly visible post, or your name was mentioned in a blog post that's been picked up by search engines.
According to Initative 21, a German non-profit project focused on information sharing, there are traces of around 64 million German citizens available on the internet, despite only 35 million being active on social media.
Mr. Rohleder told Handelsblatt that in the future, bosses will rely even more on social media during selection processes, so job seekers must learn to look after their online presence where possible. Sometimes that can be as simple as a Google search to see what's out there, but it can also prove more complex.
Accepting contact requests from unknown profiles is one of the biggest traps people fall into, according to Christoph Richter, senior vice president of the business unit at Xing, a German competitor of LinkedIn.
"Users should only accept inquiries that they believe are good and sensible," he said. "Through that new, interesting contacts can be made."
Users should not be fooled by profiles with large networks built on "superficiality rather than validity," but instead do a few minutes of their own online sleuthing to determine if the request is indeed from a potentially useful contact.
It's worth the effort because it could lead to job opportunities down the road, Mr. Richter said. A few years ago, headhunters searched online mainly to fill managerial roles, but these days highly qualified employees are the biggest target searches in the internet job market.
Ralph Dannhäuser, a professional adviser on social media recruitment and marketing, said the most important thing for users is to think carefully before posting online content. From party photos to political statements or written work on LinkedIn or online publishing platform Medium, will you be sorry if a post – or its traces – are still around in 10 years?
"The online reputation is a gold currency today, because the Internet does not forget," warned Mr. Dannhäuser, who published a book on social media recruiting in 2015. His best advice is for users to publish content under a pseudonym if they are unsure how it might affect their professional career.
There is still one crucial way regain some control of your presence in the tangled sprawl of the World Wide Web. In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled that citizens had the right to influence what online searches revealed about them.
Search engines like Google must allow users in the European Union the right to be “forgotten” after a certain time, by erasing links to undesirable websites unless there are “particular reasons” not to, according to the European Court of Justice.
Google offers a removal request form where users can submit links and reasons why they should be "forgotten." The process, which involves Google verifying everything from users' identity to citizenship, can take weeks of back-and-forth over email. But for some job seekers it might be worth it.