The past few years have seen the emergence of a raft of online social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. In recent times, these networks have evolved from purely social mediums to a means of job and career networking used by jobseekers, recruitment companies and employers alike.

Previously, the majority of professional online networking had been limited to specific business-oriented sites such as LinkedIn and LinkMe that allow users to upload their career profiles and interact with contacts and employers from related industries. But there is now a tendency among major companies to also use social networking sites to advertise vacancies, promote their organisation as an employer of choice and establish a potential candidate pool.

From a recruitment industry perspective, social networking sites can lead recruiters to people who may never respond to a job ad. Social networking sites have a real place for people looking to broaden their professional networks as well as their social lives.

So what does this mean for jobseekers? First and foremost, it is important that you embrace the technology. The online networking trend is widely used for recruiting purposes in the US and UK and its popularity is mounting here in Australia – Facebook alone records more than 5000 new Australian members each day. Recruitment companies and employers are now using these networks as genuine sourcing channels. With the majority of available positions not being advertised, online networking is an invaluable opportunity to promote yourself.

US statistics reveal that Facebook is now the web’s most popular site in the 17- to 25-year-old age group and, with worldwide talent shortages being such an ongoing issue, recruiters are already looking to target the next generation. Despite this, Facebook’s fastest growing membership group is actually those aged 25 to 35, which indicates that the concept of social networking is gaining a broader and more mature appeal.

But social networking sites aren’t replacing the professional ones just yet. LinkedIn is the world’s principal professionally-oriented networking site. Formed in 2003, the site now has more than 14 million members around the world. Locally, Australian site LinkMe’s membership has swelled to more than 60,000 since being launched in 2005. Both of these sites provide jobseekers with the opportunity to get in touch with employers and recruiters as well as anyone who can provide them with information that may support their prospects of finding suitable employment.

But the successful use of networking sites for career purposes isn’t as simple as just creating a profile and waiting for the job offers to flow. It is much more involved and requires active participation to make it work effectively.

When using networking sites it is essential that you present yourself in the best and most professional light. This means updating your profile regularly to make sure it accurately reflects what you’re doing and what you’re hoping to achieve. Out-of-date information may result in unsuitable offers and can also frustrate recruiters and employers. It also may mean your most recent skill acquisition or professional experience is not being promoted as strongly as it should be.

Professional networking sites have a range of features that allow people to comment on other people’s profiles such as Recommendations on LinkedIn. This usually involves former colleagues and employers and is a very effective means for recruiters and employers to discover reliable talent.

Another feature of LinkedIn is Answers, which enables members to ask a question of their network and have it answered anonymously. When using the more social networking sites to promote your career, however, it is important that you only allow potential employers to see the information that relates to you professionally. This means understanding and applying the respective sites’ privacy settings to ensure you control exactly what you display.

To illustrate the potential perils of some of these sites, I was recently made aware of an organisation in the entertainment industry that, prior to selecting its short list, decided to do some research on the candidates through YouTube. Based purely on readily accessible information, the organisation ruled out interviews for three candidates.

I have also encountered a situation where a candidate was about to receive a job offer – until the organisation decided to Google him. What they found was a blog the candidate had written, criticising his previous employer. This information raised enough questions about the candidate’s character to warrant the offer being withdrawn.

Social networking sites provide a variety of privacy settings that allow you to control exactly what each of your contacts can see. To this end, it is recommended that you place restrictions on what aspects of your profile a prospective employer is able to see, compared with what you may be prepared to share with your close friends. So when you open your profile to a professional contact, you could consider limiting their access to just your work and educational information and contact details, while saving your weekend comments and photos for your friends. I often suggest that candidates test their privacy settings with a friend or colleague so they are completely aware of the information that is accessible to people with different viewing access. You may be surprised!

Sites like Facebook are blurring the lines between our personal and professional identities. In addition to learning about your skills and experience, prospective employers may also use your profile as a form of pre-employment check. A recent US survey revealed that 77 percent of corporate recruiters screen candidates using web-based searches with a staggering 35 percent admitting to having eliminated candidates based on what the searches have revealed.

Based on current trends, it is fair to suggest that online networking is going to become an increasingly popular medium with both recruiters and employers mining the internet for candidates. I believe it is only a matter of time before online job boards are adding links to websites such as YouTube to provide jobseekers with recorded job ads that provide the low-down on a particular role as well as information about the employer’s brand and workplace culture.

And if Facebook represents the cutting edge of today’s online technology, what does the future hold? Trends suggest that online virtual world Second Life could be the next big thing in online recruitment. Second Life enables members to interact with each other through their chosen virtual characters. Users can select their appearance and their identity, and can purchase commodities such as clothing and real estate.

And, just like the real world, it hasn’t taken long for recruitment companies and major organisations (such as IBM, Accenture and GE Money) to use the virtual world for the purposes of sourcing talent. This year has seen the first virtual job fairs take place with consultants conducting online interviews with candidates and achieving remarkable success. With nine million members and growing, Second Life is obviously an emerging medium for online career networking.

Whatever the future holds and however you choose to approach it, online networking can be a simple and effective way of getting to first base with recruitment companies and employers alike.