If you aren’t using social networking sites in your job search, you may be missing out on opportunities.

The rapid rise of social networking over the past five years is nothing short of a phenomenon. In fact, according to the Nielsen Company, the New York-based media conglomerate, social networking and blogs are now more popular than e-mail.

The numbers are astonishing. Again according to Nielsen, two-thirds of the world’s Internet population visit social networking or blogging sites, accounting for almost 10% of all Internet time. “Social networking has become a fundamental part of the global online experience.” John Burbank, Nielsen Online’s CEO, said.

While the sites early growth was due mostly to young people, the audience has now broadened to include people of all ages, from all professions and trades. The sites have actually become a sophisticated tool in use by job-seekers, business owners and organizational decision-makers.

The top five social networking sites this past February, ranked by growth in traffic, according to Nielsen, were:

1. Twitter;

2. Zimbio;

3. Facebook;

4. Multiply; and

5. Wikia.

Web analytic company Compete Inc. ranked the top 10 social networking sites by monthly visits. Heading the list was Facebook, followed by MySpace, Twitter, Flixster, LinkedIn, Classmates, myYearbook, LiveJournal, imeem and MyLife (formerly Reunion.com). The numbers for the top three were nothing short of staggering: Facebook (1,191,373,339); MySpace (810,153,536); and Twitter (54,218,731).

But even with social networking’s widespread acceptance, many job-hunters aren’t fully exploiting all its advantages. A common error is failing to pick a site that is consistent with their goals. With new social networking sites starting up every year, picking the right one requires serious research.

Most people have little idea about the impact a site like MySpace is making, said David Perry, Ottawa-based new-media marketing expert and author of Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons). “MySpace has more than 200 million users,” he said. “If MySpace was a country it would be the fifth largest in the world. More than 25% of all Americans are on MySpace. On average, 300,000 people sign up to MySpace every day.”

Those numbers are why recruiters are using it, and Facebook, to find “passive” job-hunters, that is, potentially desirable candidates who are employed and not actively looking for a new job, he said. “MySpace is more formal and used primarily by companies to post information about their expertise along with positions and job descriptions. Facebook is used primarily by people to communicate with friends and build informal networks of like-minded individuals.” 

Even in social networking’s early days, he said, head-hunters saw the potential of the sites as a valuable tool for selecting talented job candidates. “Many recruiters think that the best candidates are the ones who aren’t out there looking. They needed clever search tools - like Google and ZoomInfo - to find people who fit their search criteria, but who are likely still in a job.” He added that companies know that most candidates, even if employed, can be seduced by a better offer (more money and perks, bigger job).

Smart, mobile, new-media-savvy career-builders always keep their options open, making sure that head-hunters can always find them. Many build their own web sites and aggressively market themselves. “Web summaries on sites like ZoomInfo, as well as blogs, provide personalized URLS that can be used as crawlable home pages on the web,” Perry explained. “They’re also good opportunities to showcase credentials and interests.”

Christopher Carfi, CEO of Cerado Inc., a social networking software company in Half Moon Bay, Calif., says that there are many parallels between how business owners and job-seekers when using social networks. Essentially, their goals are the same because they both are trying to foster and grow business relationships.

 “Business owners are trying to grow relationships with new customers, and strengthen the relationships with existing ones,” he explained. “And job-seekers are doing the same thing: they’re trying to find their next employer.”

And smart passive job-seekers are strengthening their existing relationships in case market conditions change and a job change is warranted.

To get the most from social networking sites, Carfi offered the following tips for career-builders:

Spend more time listening than talking. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or personal blogs, invest time understanding the conversations that are taking place at the company. The idea is get a sense of what the company is all about, especially its culture and mission. Try to understand the motivations and goals of the people who work there.

Once conversations are understood, contribute to them by adding salient comments in existing threads. This builds credibility and puts the job-seeker on the radar.

When credibility is established and authenticity earned, use the network to arrange a face-to-face meeting.

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