Nov. 6, 2008 -- By now, we've all heard that recruiters and hiring managers are increasingly using social networking sites to find job applicants. A study released in October by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 17 percent more HR professionals use sites like LinkedIn to recruit candidates than they did in 2006.
I've paid a lot of lip service in past columns to using LinkedIn to stay connected with professionals in your field and to help in your hunt for full-time or consulting work, should you find yourself unemployed. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I'm not a fan of online "friends" bombarding me with pokes and personality quizzes and silly little beer stein icons.
When it comes to making business contacts, I prefer LinkedIn's no-muss, no-fuss approach. And since every Fortune 500 company and 600,000 small business owners also use the site, I'd think anyone serious about maximizing their job hunt would too.
But besides "find employers" and "meet people" I haven't told you much about what you can actually do with LinkedIn. Probably because, like most LinkedIn users I know, I hadn't done much more than fill out my profile and build up my contact list.
So, in an attempt to crawl out from under my online networking rock and see what this site could really do, I contacted LinkedIn spokeswoman Krista Canfield last week for a quick lesson in the free features that I'd been missing out on. Herewith, my top eight LinkedIn tips (gleaned from Canfield) that even the most technophobic job hunter can put to use:
1. Boost Your Profile's SEO
Transferring the highlights of your resume to your LinkedIn profile and slapping on an office-appropriate photo is just the tip of the iceberg. Boost the odds that a potential employer using LinkedIn will find you by adding key words that describe what you do to your profile -- for example, "small business taxes," "visual merchandising" or "pharmaceutical sales." And increase your Googleability across the Web by replacing the random number assigned to the end of your Public Profile link with your full name (after the http://www.linkedin.com/).
2. Broadcast Your News
Fill in the "What are you working on?" field at the top of your profile to let contacts know you're attending a business conference (perhaps one of your online pals is too) or looking for a new position (maybe one of your contacts knows someone who knows someone with an opening). And show off your Web site, blog (if the content is strictly professional) or the latest high-profile article about your company using the Web sites fields (to customize the title, select "Other" from the drop-down menu).
3. Join a Group
Joining an alumni group (academic or former employer) or an industry-specific group is a great way to rub virtual elbows with folks you already have something in common with. The more specific the group, the better. I'm a member of a catchall group for Seattle-area professionals, and it's basically a classifieds section of 5,000 job seekers and consultants shouting, "Hire me! Hire me!" Not too helpful. The academic alumni group I joined is far more valuable. And since I haven't found a LinkedIn group for Seattle-area freelance writers, I'm thinking of starting one of my own.
4. Ask and Answer Questions
I'm a big fan of the Answers tab on LinkedIn. Answer a question posed by the peanut gallery and you just might impress a potential employer or client with your customer service, consumer electronics or guerilla marketing expertise. Ask a question of your contacts or the LinkedIn community at large (the choice is yours) and you just might get the resume makeover or salary negotiation tip of the century. Since nobody likes an infomercial, be sure you're helping others as much as you're helping and promoting yourself in the Answers forum. Don't be a mooch.
5. Find Companies to Work for and Rising Stars to Emulate
LinkedIn is home to 160,000 companies you can run searches on. Look one of them up and you can find all sorts of useful information, from fresh job listings and accessible HR contacts to new hires (people whose brains you can pick) to people in your extended network who work there (people you a mutual contact can introduce you to via LinkedIn).
You can also view profiles of rising stars with positions you covet to track their career trajectories: What job titles did they hold and companies did they work for before assuming their current positions? Maybe you can't get into the hot shot companies they work for now, but you can target the smaller companies they came from. You can also join any relevant professional groups they belong to on LinkedIn and learn by osmosis.
6. Give and Get Recommendations
LinkedIn makes it easy for you to collect and display the testimonials of colleagues, customers, managers and direct reports who know and love you -- right in your profile. You simply fill out a box asking your contact to endorse you, and the contact sends back a reply saying how fantastic you are to work with. Voila! -- instant referral.
A couple of tips for referral seekers from someone who's been on the receiving end of more unwarranted requests for referrals than she can count: Don't ask someone who's never worked with you or never seen a sample of your work for a referral. While your mother might be willing to vouch for your skills, most self-respecting professionals won't. Also, help the person doing the referring by telling him or her what type of job you're looking for and what skills you'd like the person to highlight. That way, you'll get the most relevant referral you can.
7. Make Contacts Judiciously
This isn't MySpace, where whoever has the most "friends" gets on Page Six or Entertainment Tonight. That's why the highest number of contacts LinkedIn will display in your profile is 500. Don't be a contact whore; only reach out to folks you actually know. And when you do reach out to someone, send a personalized message instead of the generic "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn" message that the site provides.
By the same token, if someone asks you to be their contact and you have no idea who they are or don't care to include them in your digital Rolodex, there's nothing wrong with hitting delete. Remember, your contacts may approach you for favors, recommendations or introductions to your other contacts later. Choose them wisely.
8. Don't Wait Till You Lose Your Job
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Join LinkedIn now, even if you have a job to go to every week. If you get laid off, you'll be glad you don't have to scramble to piece together an entire network of professionals willing to go to bat for you.
Know that updating your LinkedIn profile every three to six months doesn't mean you can abandon your traditional CV. Hiring managers you connect with via LinkedIn will still want to see your tried-and-true resume too.
Finally, if LinkedIn is too starched-shirt for your tastes, there are countless other social networking sites in the digital sea. But that's a topic for another column.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.