LinkedIn Stays All Business with New Social Features

LinkedIn, the social network for business professionals, stepped out of the shadow of larger sites competing in this market with new features designed to help its nearly 17 million members get ahead in their careers. In doing so, it’s showing that there is a lot more to online networking than blogging about last night’s party and sending virtual drinks to your friends.

I freely admit that I haven’t done much on LinkedIn with my profile or on the social network in general. That’s partly because there really didn’t seem to be a lot to do on the network when I joined. I don’t always think to take advantage of business networking opportunities even when I’m face to face with someone, so using the site seemed a little “unnatural” to me. It looks like LinkedIn is trying to change that.

The company has rolled out a slew of changes since the beginning of October. Some of these are things that other social networks do as a matter of course. For example, after adding photos to LinkedIn profiles, the company added the option of letting users display their photos with all of their communication. That’s a natural thing for a dating site to do, but its importance is enhanced in a business context, as Chris Richman notes in LinkedIn’s official blog. “Imagine being able to identify whether an invitation is from someone you had a conversation with at a recent event vs. someone you don’t recognize,” he explained. With fears that social sites can help foster identity theft, this is no small consideration.

Of course, it was LinkedIn’s participation in the launch of OpenSocial that started people talking. As you probably recall, OpenSocial is a set of open APIs that allow developers to easily build and deploy social applications across the web. That participation has enabled LinkedIn to unveil a new developer platform that takes advantage of the benefits of OpenSocial. Called the LinkedIn Intelligent Application Platform, it’s a major step toward making LinkedIn more competitive and more relevant in the social networking space. LinkedIn has made some other significant changes as well: a new home page design and the addition of new modules that users can embed into their accounts. I’ll discuss each of these improvements in turn.

The LinkedIn Intelligent Application platform is described by Lucian Beebe, director of product management, in the company’s blog as enabling two things: bringing LinkedIn to a developer’s application, and bringing a developer’s application to LinkedIn. That’s not actually as confusing as it sounds. What Beebe means by bringing LinkedIn to a developer’s application is that developers can integrate LinkedIn information from a user’s network (with the user’s permission) into their applications.

Bringing a developer’s application to LinkedIn, of course, is pretty straightforward; it simply means that programmers will be able to write applications that run inside LinkedIn.com. It’s LinkedIn’s support for OpenSocial that makes this possible right now, but the company intends to “add other models in the future,” according to Beebe.

LinkedIn has already announced a partnership with Business Week concerning this platform. Business Week built an application that pulls information from a LinkedIn user’s network (when the user authorizes it to do so) to enhance their viewing of Business Week’s content. So when a member of LinkedIn is reading a story about, for example, Apple, the application will look at the member’s profile and highlight the names of people they know at Apple.

It’s worth noting that LinkedIn wants to maintain its focus on being a network for business professionals while it phases this in. Beebe explicitly points out that “to leverage this distribution engine, you have to have a business productivity application…LinkedIn will remain focused on improving the productivity of people doing business and we’ll work with people fitting that standard.” So no applications that let you “bite” others on the network here!

On the other hand, that still leaves plenty of room for some very useful widgets. Imagine you’re putting together a business conference. Wouldn’t it be nice to offer those who register for the conference some way to find out who else in their network is going – or to recommend the conference to others in their network?

Taking it one step further, how about building a widget that could tell users how popular a particular conference is among those in their network? I could see someone making money from this widget by charging conferences a nominal fee to be listed. It would be a great way to get the right information where it can be useful. After all, sometimes it helps to be able to access information about your social network when you’re not actually on your social network site. “It’s become clear that there is a very strong need to let LinkedIn users take their network with them as they use the Web to be more productive,” wrote Beebe in his post. Or, in three simple words: LinkedIn gets it.

LinkedIn seems particularly pleased with the new home page features it has unveiled. These come in three parts: company news, network updates, and customizable modules. At the time of this writing, LinkedIn was offering “sneak peeks” of the new home page.

The company news part of the update is supposed to be a customized news feed that shows the latest information about your own company and the articles your colleagues are reading. Alas, I couldn’t get a look at what my customized news feed would look like, for whatever reason. But here’s the example that LinkedIn itself included:

 

Network updates are supposed to let you know what various members of your network are up to. Sorted chronologically, these updates tell you when a member of your network changes jobs, asks a business question, recommends you as an expert, recommends a service, adds a connection, and so forth. While I’m not on Facebook or MySpace myself, it reminds me of the special feeds you can get that keep you informed of your friends’ activities.

I have a very small network, so my network update wouldn’t really illustrate the power of this feature. Here is LinkedIn’s example of a network update box:

 

The customizable modules deserve a section of their own, even though there aren’t very many of those yet. I think they have the biggest potential to change LinkedIn into a much more social site than it is currently. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

These modules bring certain kinds of information directly to your home page, right at your fingertips where you can use it. Right now, there are only three modules available, but LinkedIn clearly intends for there to be more. The modules cover jobs (latest job postings in your areas of interest), people (shows you people you might know; can be customized for special purposes, such as finding candidates for a particular position), and “Answers” (the site has a Question & Answers section; the items highlighted in this area are relevant to the user’s field).

At last, I can actually show you what something from my own LinkedIn home page looks like.

 

Let’s take a look at the People module first. As it happens, I don’t know Declan O’Connor from Searchles, but I probably should; I’ve exchanged friendly emails and, in one case, a phone call with four other people who work for the social bookmarking/search engine company. One of them is in my LinkedIn network, as it happens. I know Mitch Keeler at least by reputation, having listened to a couple of his podcasts and quoted him in some of my articles for Web Hosters; I may even have exchanged emails with him.

I’ve never heard of Rishi Shah at Flying Cart, but since the other two seemed to be on target, I now think it might be a good idea to at least look up Flying Cart and find out what they do. As it happens, I can simply click on Shah’s profile, in which he includes a direct link to Flying Cart (he’s the CEO). From the home page, it looks like the company helps people set up their own online stores, quickly and easily.

That’s not quite in my line as far as writing for SEO Chat, but I can see the possibility of finding others in the same business, comparing their services, and writing an article for Web Hosters. This naturally suggests a very good business use for LinkedIn for me. Trust me, when you’re a writer who has to meet a set quota of articles every week, any new idea is worth its weight in gold! 

The Answers module is kind of interesting. Clicking on the question takes you to the answers that other people have given for that question. Clicking on the “See more” link takes you to more questions. Aside from looking much more business-like, this area of LinkedIn’s site reminds me of Yahoo! Answers or Amazon’s attempt at a social network. There are about sixteen categories of questions. These are further divided into subcategories.

For the Answers module, you’re subscribed to a certain category and subcategory of questions depending on the interests you stated in your profile. I seem to be subscribed to the Web Development subcategory of the Technology module. None of this prevents me from clicking a different category or subcategory; in fact, since these modules are customizable, I expect I can change it to send me questions from whichever category I wish.

Since the Jobs module seems to be self-explanatory, I won’t go over it here. Instead, I’ll state what LinkedIn seems set to accomplish with these new features. First, it’s getting people excited about the web site again by offering them functionality that they’ll actually find useful (the Jobs and People modules alone may be worth it for someone who is looking for work). Second, it’s bringing itself into the modern era of social networking – but it’s doing it the LinkedIn way, with a briefcase and a business suit. That’s actually a good thing; it’s a valuable differentiator in a crowded social network market.

Will these changes lift LinkedIn out of an “also-ran” position in its field? It’s too early to tell at this point. But the new features have convinced at least one inactive member that it might be worthwhile to update that profile and find out everything the site has to offer. Who knows? It might even make good business sense.

Google+ Comments

Google+ Comments