LinkedIn IPO Arrives as Users Log Off

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Hot IPO or not, social networking service LinkedIn is no longer the go-to small-business social media weapon of choice.

LinkedIn used to be the logical launchpad for small businesses trying to get right with social media. Ever since it began in 2002, the notion of a trusted network was just the discipline knucklehead entrepreneurs needed to get online. It forced us all to inventory our contacts, rate our leads, reach out and confirm the status of our potential sources of revenue and in general benefit from the give and take of an online, professional social life.

LinkedIn is no longer the logical launchpad for small businesses trying to get right with social media.

But no longer. In more than a half-decade of use that includes developing a circle of 700 active contacts, writing guides for small-business use of LinkedIn and even teaching a course or two on the topic for potential entrepreneurs, I can no longer be counted as a fan.

In recent years I have found it to be less valuable than it used to be, to the point where I now advise small businesses to limit their use of LinkedIn.

Here's why:

Information on LinkedIn is not as good as it used to be.
The biggest problem I have with LinkedIn today is the overall degradation in the quality of information on the service. Not only is full contact information withheld from the free product, but even in the pay version I am seeing that key decision-makers have long removed their profiles due to barrage of meaningless propositions. I now have to verify every lead I get from LinkedIn with either search engine contact info, social content from, say, Facebook or Twitter, or a good old-fashioned phone referral. Either way, the days of blithely paying up for full access to LinkedIn, getting a contact, sending a pitch message and expecting a response are over.

New services are not worth the money -- or the hassle.
LinkedIn seems to be aware it is no longer delivering the social-media, small-business goods and, to make up for it, has been rolling out product after product that appears to extend the site's value -- but really doesn't. Most of these services are clumsy, hard to use and do not work as well as similar, purpose-built services found elsewhere online. The top LinkedIn duds are Answers, Projects and Teamspaces, and My Travel. And some services are simply bizarre: LinkedIn Skills? Are you kidding me!?

Answers tries to hold high-level discussions about businessworthy topics but is no match for a dedicated question-and-answer service such as Quora. Projects and Teamspaces and My Travel try to weave task management and location-based networking into the LinkedIn experience, but even Google's free tasks tool is more effective. And as far as Skills goes, honestly I am not sure what the utility is. You enter what you know how to do and LinkedIn refers you to like-minded members, but rarely am I referred to anybody of value. I have almost never used the service.

LinkedIn has become an inappropriate place to syndicate other social content.
This service has also become a first-rate place to make an utter fool of yourself. The content overload on LinkedIn is so severe now that I no longer recommend that users syndicate their Facebook, Twitter or blog content directly to the service. The fastest way to drive off a potential sale is to bore the customer with factoids about the kids that you posted to Facebook but show up on LinkedIn. So to use this service well you must commit yourself to yet another time-consuming content feed. And after the time sucks that are Facebook and Twitter, who has the bandwidth for that? The answer is nobody.

Alternatives are becoming equally as powerful.
Quite honestly, competitive products are not only as good as LinkedIn, they're better. Social media services such as Facebook and Twitter do a darn nice job offering professional-oriented content -- most of your colleagues have both personal and professional Facebook pages and Twitter feeds now -- and Web-based operations such as Google ( GOOG) and Microsoft ( MSFT) also have sophisticated social networking tools built right in. To see the power here, check out a London-based product called Rapportive, which vacuums up all available Web content (including LinkedIn material) for a given email address and places it right in your Gmail. I have not visited LinkedIn for months.

Bottom line
LinkedIn is now, at best, a basic contact-generating engine, the place a small firm goes to start developing a contact or dig up a set of resumes to fill a position or find a vendor. But as far as critical sales leads go, it is at best a place to confirm a title, get simple information or learn more about an organization. It is not the final authority on what a critical new business lead is thinking or what his or her relationship is to the larger world.

These days, if you attempt to live and die by LinkedIn, I am afraid you will spend a lot more time dead than alive.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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