Back in January, I was engaged in some urgent matters via LinkedIn, only to have the site go down. Like many, I hopped onto Twitter and began to inquire what was up, as if anyone on Twitter would know. I guess maybe it was some comfort to know it wasn't just me who couldn't connect. It was everyone.
As I browsed through various disgruntled tweets, I noticed many rumors that LinkedIn was likely to go public soon. On one hand, I thought that perhaps this infusion of cash might lead to more stability and fewer error messages about unavailable functions. On the other hand, by my reckoning, the current owners of LinkedIn have wallpapered their homes with currency and have swimming pools full of hundred dollar bills. In fact, while Facebook remains free, yet still worth an estimated $60 billion, LinkedIn has cleverly figured out ways to entice members to pay -- and pay and pay and pay -- for memberships, ads, and various services.
The recruiter in me who knows a thing or two about information technology understands how occasionally systems get overloaded. But the consumer in me who sees LinkedIn coming up with more overt ways to bring in revenue than the "social network" has trouble getting his mind around how the site doesn't have enough redundant servers and databases to make the process a bit more satisfying (or at least less distracting) to those of us who are addicted to it like Facebook couch potatoes are to Farmville.
As my thoughts grew darker, I decided to vent my frustrations a bit. So I posed this question to roughly 90 million of my closest friends: What are your LinkedIn pet peeves? Here are the top 10, culled from user responses, with my own input mixed in.
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1: LinkedIn LIONs
I can't fathom that anyone would not know what a LinkedIn LION is, but in case some individuals have managed to live in blissful ignorance, a LION is a Linked In Open Networker. LIONs are people who will connect to anyone and accept requests to connect from anyone.
To most, this sounds fairly innocuous. At face value, it is. Many users are even told by well-intentioned friends and colleagues that if they want to grow their networks, they should become LIONs. (I was, and I briefly went over to the dark side when I first joined LinkedIn.)
What you are not told is that many (not all) LIONs believe that once they have your email address, they automatically have your permission to start sending you their marketing newsletters. Many others (especially those at the top of the chains) have figured out that they can generate revenue by selling contact lists.
If we set aside these behaviors as anomalies, there still exists a mentality within the LION subculture of taking rather than giving anything back. Whereas the LinkedIn motto is "Relationships matter," in the eyes of a typical LION, numbers trump relationships. The goal is to accumulate as many contacts as you can through any means possible.
LinkedIn LIONS are notorious for joining groups and then posting an introduction that goes something like this, "Hello. I'm ___. I really wish that I could get to know all of you, but I'm limited to joining 50 groups and therefore have to drop out of this group. I'd love to get to know you though and will accept invitations to connect from anyone who sends one." I have been the owner of a few groups and have usually been vigilant about allowing LIONs in, but I've had a few members make such a post after corresponding with me to get approved and promising that they wouldn't.
The other somewhat humorous fact about LIONs is that they take umbrage at being able to invite only 3,000 individuals to connect to them. So the ones who have reached that limit will send emails saying, "I'd like to connect to you, but I've run out of invitations and mean old LinkedIn won't let me have more. Will you invite me to connect to you? Here's a link you can use to connect to me."
One could reasonably ask, "How in the world can Facebook be a description of a LinkedIn problem?" The answer is simple. The Facebook culture, where anyone who sends you an invitation to connect is your "friend," is so pervasive that it has spilled over into LinkedIn. Keep in mind that LinkedIn is supposed to be a business-oriented networking Web site -- a place where you make business contacts and interact in ways that are designed to expand your business network, grow your business, and help others do the same.
The challenge is that people join LinkedIn who have previously known nothing but Facebook (or worse, the old MySpace), and they start "friending" every contact who interests them. No use of introductions. Not even a message like, "Hey, I saw your profile and I'm interested in connecting because..." The recipient gets an invitation from someone on the other side of the world that says, "Kheng would like to connect with you and indicates that you are a friend." Then there are messages like the one supposedly from a student attending the University of Exeter, who was trying to accumulate as many contacts as she could as a part of a class project (implying that some professor believes that spamming people around the globe is a helpful way to grow your business contacts). I made the mistake of accepting one such friend request last year and within a week, I was overwhelmed by dozens of additional requests, none of whom would reply to messages asking for a bit of information about themselves.
It doesn't matter if you have ten thousand direct contacts on LinkedIn. If none of them knows who you are, or worse, if they look at you as an irritating spammer, all your efforts at building a network have been counterproductive. Ari Herzog, a social media communication specialist from Boston, pointed out in a recent discussion online, "The old saying...,'It's not what you know, it's who you know,' is wrong today. The new saying is, 'It's not who you know, it's who knows you.' You may be connected to hundreds of people on LinkedIn, but unless they know you -- and not just your name -- they'll never help you. Ditto elsewhere."
Whether you're a Web marketing genius, a misguided student from England, a veteran recruiter, or a job seeker, one good contact who knows you reasonably well and is willing to take some action on your behalf is worth more than 1,000 online "friends" who don't know you from Adam. If you take nothing else away from this, remember that the first contact you make with someone is your opportunity to make a meaningful first impression -- or no first impression at all. A relatively modest effort on your part can yield positive results in the long run.
There are several ways you can contact someone via LinkedIn. First, you can send a message through a mutual contact. This is called an introduction request. It can be time consuming, and sometimes the message doesn't get through, especially if your contact must send a message to his or her contact, who then must send a message to the end recipient. On the other hand, it can be very useful, especially if you send the request through someone who knows you, thinks highly of you, and says nice things about you in the process. Introductions, when successful, are much better than cold calls or direct messages because someone is vouching for you as a part of the process.
The second way is sending InMails. InMails are purchased, but they allow you to contact someone directly with whom you otherwise would have to use an introduction or whom you wouldn't be able to contact at all. Since LinkedIn members pay to use InMails, they generally don't use them for spammy purposes. They use them because they have a specific (usually business-related) reason, and contacting the person quickly is important.
Finally, there are group-related messages. LinkedIn allows members to join up to 50 groups. These groups may be related to professional interests, specific affiliations, industries, companies, schools, and so on. One benefit of joining groups is that in most cases, members can send messages directly to other group members without having to request an introduction or spend an InMail.
Here's the catch. Spammers have gotten wise to this. So a company will set up a profile for some low-level marketing flunky who sends out messages to every member of the group, inviting them to join a newly created group or to check out the company Web site or espousing the virtues of the product they are offering. Thankfully, after much pleading by members, LinkedIn finally created an option to flag messages as spam. While it doesn't eliminate spammers, it should help LinkedIn shut them down more quickly.
Scammers are close cousins to spammers. Sometimes they are more sophisticated. Usually they aren't. They range from barristers representing estates and needing help moving huge sums of currency out of the country to people asking for help in purchasing specific pieces of property near you. Probably the most difficult to pin down are those who pose as representatives of charitable organizations, often complete with Web sites. The sad fact is that you have to assume that anyone who's asking for money is a scammer unless you have an extremely reliable contact in that person's location who can verify their claims. As someone who once gave serious thought to establishing a nonprofit, I feel for the good-hearted people who get painted with the same brush. But in this case, it seems reasonably safe to assume that the bad eggs far outnumber the good ones.
5: Answer trolls
One nice LinkedIn feature is the ability to post questions about a variety of subjects and get reasonably good answers quickly from subject matter experts. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you're having serious legal troubles, you probably don't want to turn to LinkedIn's free answers for help unless you're just asking about how to find a good lawyer. On the other hand, you can get a lot of helpful replies on subjects ranging from how to use LinkedIn to technical issues to ... well, to just about anything.
Some people are naturally inclined to be helpful. But others seem to be using LinkedIn for self-promotion and/or self-fulfillment. It generally isn't hard to figure out over time. If someone seems to consistently post answers that point back to things they have done, products they sell, or books they have written, that might be a clue.
I have been a member of LinkedIn since around the middle of 2004 -- about a year after the site launched. In that time, I have answered 183 questions. Twenty-one of those were listed as "best answers" and 44 were listed as "good answers." (I thought they were all good.) I think that's a lot of answers.
To put that in perspective, one user has posted 421 answers this week. Another user, who has posted 250 answers this week, has posted 445 "best answers" just on the subject of how to use LinkedIn. The top answer guru of all time on LinkedIn has responded to more than 35,000 questions to date. Just by eyeballing his profile, it looks like he has provided a shade more than 400 best answers. The #2 all-time responder has provided almost 25,000 answers and (again just a guesstimate) maybe 100 best answers.
These folks don't get me as hot and bothered as LIONs, spammers, and scammers, but they do really irritate some members. I have seen answer discussions degenerate into flame wars between people posting answers. I think the main source of irritation for many is just the blatant self-promotion that some display. But if enough of their answers are so helpful that they are getting credit for having the best answers, I'm not going to lose sleep over them. My advice would be that if two answers seem equally good to you and one comes from someone who already has credit for 300 best answers, give the credit to the other person.
6: Lack of meaningful competition
Technically, this isn't an issue with LinkedIn. But it has led LinkedIn to be a bit complacent at times.
Plaxo is probably the closest thing to a competitor. It started out as an online contact management tool. Unfortunately, I think the founders lacked a clear sense of what they wanted the site to be when it grew up. For a time, Plaxo was generating a lot of spam, which caused the brand to be damaged goods in the eyes of many individuals. It has made significant improvements, but even though it has been around since 2002, it is effectively a late entry into this market. Other sites like Xing and Ryze also have a lot of catching up to do.
7: Profit-mongering bean counters
I totally get that the good folks at LinkedIn deserve to make a reasonable return off what is really a darn good product. But having said that, they seem to have lost all sense of connection with their customers.
Take, for example, the following solicitation I received from LinkedIn. I currently utilize a Business Plus account. Based on the amount I spend, from LinkedIn's perspective, it is a small business account, and LinkedIn would like to see me spending more per month. Recently, it informed me that if I were seeking a new job, I should consider upgrading to a premium account. For a mere $499.95 per month (called a Pro account), I could have a job-seeker badge on my profile, contact more people by introduction, and have access to Lindsey Pollak's webinar "Job Seeking on LinkedIn."
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure it's a terrific webinar. But someone please tell me, what job seeker has $6,000 per year in expendable income to devote to a job search? Assuming I found myself out of a job and for some reason not hamstrung by mortgage payments, groceries, medical expenses, kids' braces, and so on, I can think of a lot of things I'd likely spend $6k on before forking it over to LinkedIn. Not only is it hard to conceive of a typical job seeker having that much extra money to spend on a job search, it is hard to conceive of the average job seeker being unwise enough to part with their hard-earned currency for the sake of viewing Ms. Pollak's webinar.
It's this disconnect, not understanding that both job seekers and businesses at all levels are just barely getting by, that pokes at me like a stick in the eye when I get various emails from LinkedIn announcing that services previously offered for free now must be purchased. Keep in mind that I am describing fee structures for individual memberships. On top of this revenue stream, LinkedIn is making money running ads that are paid for by LinkedIn members for services and products, as well as job postings paid for by search firms and employers. They also offer apps, such as reading lists that connect back to Amazon.com, which are bound to be revenue-generating to some degree.
Does LinkedIn have every right to do these things? Absolutely. However, the way it goes about its business seems to have the unintended result of creating disgruntled rumblings among the LinkedIn citizenry. And as we have seen in the news of late, you don't want your citizenry to be disgruntled.
8: Bugs, glitches, downtime, etc.
I think what mystifies me the most is that a company that is clearly bringing in a nice steady revenue stream and isn't offering a complicated online product (such as online multiplayer gaming) is regularly completely down or notifying me that I can't read my messages right now and should check back later.
Yes, 90 million-plus registered users is a lot of people. At any given time though, a third of them are asleep. And a significant percentage of them created an account one day and never came back. I don't recall having ever been online and having Facebook go down, and its members are sharing videos, large folders of photos, and doing live chat 24/7 -- all 500 million of them.
You all are the tech experts. Are my expectations unreasonable?
9: Group members moving other members' posts or ignoring posting guidelines
This is a tricky one. On one hand, group owners or moderators for the most part are hard working professionals who can't devote all their time to enforcing group rules. I have actually given up ownership of a group simply because I was spread too thin and felt that I wasn't doing justice to the group or its members.
As a recruiter, I get irked at other recruiters who ignore posting guidelines and post jobs in the general discussion section. And yes, I have flagged some as jobs. But I'm honestly bothered that members can police one another in this respect. Invariably, when I post a link to an article I have written here on TechRepublic, someone comes along and moves it to the jobs section because it's about job seekers, improving national employment numbers, or something else that's remotely job-related. The right solution would be for LinkedIn to require groups to have a certain number of active moderators per 500 members (or some ratio that makes sense). I don't believe that LinkedIn really cares all that much how groups are moderated though, so it is left up to the discretion of group owners.
10: Interface/usability Issues
I got a variety of suggestions from users regarding issues like not being able to track individual discussions in specific groups or responses to questions or comments posted by other members. Some users wished there were ways to block certain kinds of updates from contacts while still being able to see others. Finally, some members weren't all that impressed with LinkedIn's contact or messaging functionality. Clearly, if LinkedIn goes public in 2011 as is rumored, there will be a few things on which they can spend their influx of capital.
What are your thoughts? Is there anything you'd add to the list? Join the discussion and let us know.
Tim Heard is a professional recruiter and the owner of eSearch Associates. You can find him here on LinkedIn. If you contact him through LinkedIn, please be sure to mention that you read this article and include a bit of information about yourself. Otherwise, his head might explode.