To some, it is the most drudgingly boring website since watching-grass-grow.com. To others, it is a razor-sharp recruitment tool transplanting workers from their current jobs into sexy new positions. Whatever your view, the "grown up" social networking site LinkedIn has carved out its niche. If Bebo is the Volkswagen Beetle catering to the puckish trends of the youth market, Facebook a Ford Mondeo, popular and reliable, and Twitter a Toyota Prius, beloved of techno-geeks, then LinkedIn is a Lexus – aimed at a small number of the business-minded.
Indeed mention LinkedIn to anyone in the media – an increasingly closed-shop, cash-poor industry – and they'll look bemused. The website looks unattractive, featuring pages of contacts and career information in black text on a plain white background. The site only allowed its users to upload profile pictures in 2008. But its founders claim this simplicity explains its success – over three million members in Britain, 65 million members around the world and over 50 per cent of Fortune 100 companies are now using it as a recruitment tool.
"It's designed to be functional and effective," says Kevin Eyres, the network's European managing director. "Namely, we want people to get what they want as quickly as possible. If you spend hours on it it's not answering that challenge of making you productive. How can I quickly find that expert? How can I quickly find that source of expertise who will help me finish my products, help my business or enable that opportunity? That's what we're aiming at."
The website was founded in May 2003 in Mountain View, California by former staff from PayPal, Socialnet.com and Yahoo, where LinkedIn's chief executive Jeff Weiner was one of the company's most powerful figures. To begin, it took 477 days for it to acquire its first million members. It now attracts a million every 12 days, roughly one every second. In part, the site capitalises on media scare stories that suggest employers check out the Facebook and Twitter profiles of people they are recruiting. Linkedin creates an environment that is hermetically sealed in professional terms. It boasts a search facility so sharp you could open an envelope with it (search by sector, country, region, experience). The site makes money in three ways: through its premium service, in which companies pay to contact people on the site (email addresses are normally withheld). Its advertising reaches everyone from graduates to boardroom level. Lastly, it offers bespoke software solutions to recruitment companies, eager to tap into the 80 per cent of the job market not actively looking for a new role – those often best suited to certain positions.
"It's aimed at professionals; it's not Facebook, it's a professional business networking site," says Mike Butcher, the editor of TechCrunch Europe. "It actually pre-dates Facebook by two years, was successful in the US and is now spreading into Europe. I know recruitment companies that employ people full-time to sit on LinkedIn pulling off people's names. It's a recruiting phenomenon, it's not aimed at being social, it's aimed at people wanting to put up information about their employment. At least on LinkedIn you can be recommended by people, the equivalent of having references, there's a much more professional tone to the whole thing. It's a good business model which is much more traditional than Facebook or Twitter. It's reaching the cream of the crop; its user base is predominately professionals earning over £40,000 a year. It doesn't need masses of members." Its success also depends on national networking habits. In Turkey, for example, Facebook is used for both work and play. In Germany, there is the LinkedIn clone Xing.com, with nine million members. Naymz.com has also launched – similarly dry, and aimed at professionals – hoping to sneak away a slice of LinkedIn's profits with one million people connected.
People working in fluid, digital industries like gaming and IT stand to gain the most – though many use it reluctantly. "People in gaming move around a lot and need quick resolutions," said one games industry professional. "You can have a company pitching to publishers then suddenly strike gold and need 50 experienced artists and five designers and seven coders. The project maybe lasts a year or two and then people move company again. The ebb and flow makes it a desperate hire and everyone wants experienced workers. There are agency types who used to have to 'know' people – have contacts – now they scan LinkedIn and chance a spam mail. It's good and bad news for both parties. You have to join the world's most boring social network site but come the day your game gets canned unexpectedly, everyone knows instantly and agents want commission, workers get introduction bonuses and the newly-unemployed want work."
Louise Wiseman, who works in IT, has similar feelings. "Like a lot of people, I joined LinkedIn a couple of years ago, uploaded my profile and promptly forgot about it apart from accepting people's connection requests as they came through – I've never actively 'used' the site and I'm sure it has all kinds of features I'm not aware of," she says. "It's not snazzy enough to make me want to spend time on it. It is purely functional. In the last few months, though, I've been contacted via LinkedIn by four recruiters hiring for good roles with large, well-known companies. Unlike most approaches I've had in the past, these people had done their homework by looking at my profile so they came to me with jobs that matched my experience and skill set."
In fact, while LinkedIn does not suffer from the ambiguity of purpose that vexes users of Twitter and Facebook – and is thus, one would have thought, best kept separate from them – its founders have taken steps to increase its user-friendliness. Last week it started allowing users to update their Twitter feed from the site, as well as search for which contacts have Twitter feeds and to start viewing them. There are groups to share ideas, reading lists powered by Amazon and rather uniquely, the ability to see who's been checking out your profile.
Matthew Carrozo, who works in digital strategy, is positive about the site's ability to get him a job, but has other reservations. "Its applications platform never seemed to gain much steam beyond limited partnership with WordPress and some custom polling features," he says. "Until recently, I don't think it even had status updates, so the site felt static. They're responding, quite late, to this trend towards a 'statusphere' but aesthetic reforms seem to happen every fortnight or so now. Much of the activity does appear to be in groups, but even in the more reputable ones, the content seems to consist solely of marketing spam. Insincere questions posed to the 'community' are met with equally spammy answers to links to recycled blog content. That may just be in my industry, though. Bloody marketers." Perhaps we should treat LinkedIn like late-life religious conversion. In the end, even if the thought of joining fills you with dread, what have you got to lose?
four other professional networking websites
Founded in 2006 by three former travel company executives in Chicago, it allows users to network and manage their online reputation.
Two German entrepreneurs set this up in 2006, and now claim to operate in over 200 countries. Has smartphone compatibility.
Founded in 2004 by two graduates in France and now has an annual turnover of over €10 million euros. Best known in France.
Combines online social networking with real-life parties that operate on a "speed dating" principle. Due to launch in London imminently.