When I first joined LinkedIn, I was running recruitment for a competing recruitment product company (and, btw, if you’re on LinkedIn, and you’re not in recruitment or sales/ marketing? You’re the product). It was a good platform, different approach from my employers, and I wanted to check it out.

I was delighted back then. Seemed to make sense, lots of data, people kept adding to their profile, so the data got richer and richer. Recruiters worked out ways to look for job-search signals: a change of photo, sudden flurry of recommendations, job descriptions and titles getting more filled out (and, yes, if we find you interesting, we track those moves you make – there are even tools that automate that for us). It was good.

Moving along, LinkedIn has grown – rapidly. Deep, broad data-set. Global in nature. A mobile offering (which needs help, I’ll admit, but it’s not as bad as the people who like to kick it around claim). On and on.

With that growth, however, has come a growing number of clearly fake profiles. Set up by hackers and scammers, they have become relentless of late in their connection requests, to the point where I get scammer connection requests daily.

Check out Nabya. She just sent me the connection request that triggered this little note. She seems legit, right? Not a stock model photo. College listed, has some endorsements, connected to three of my connections, etc. Since I’m hyper sensitive lately, I do Google reverse image searches on every connection request I get from someone I don’t know. Guess what? Two pages of results – multiple LinkedIn, Google+, etc sites that use the same picture. All with different names.

This points to fake data in the LinkedIn data set – and, based on the volume of connection requests, points to a rapid rise in this fake data.

This issue here, for me, is that LinkedIn relies a lot on their numbers to sell products. One of their strongest claims when pitching to recruiting leaders is: “We have 130 million users in the US. The US working population is 200 million.” They leave it there, but the implication is that over half the working population is on LinkedIn.

But… is it? There isn’t hard data on this yet (it’s being worked on – and I know a few people who are on projects to work this out), but conservative estimates are putting the number at 15% minimum. The highest I’ve heard are 40% fake.

That’s nuts. Now, I’m not saying this % is the same region-by-region, since at least half the fake requests I get are from Asia Pac (so, the recent LinkedIn claim that they have 100m members in Asia Pac is hugely suspect). But, even if it’s just 15% of the US number, that’s significant.

The next piece is about engagement – or, to be frank, disengagement. It’s easy to set up a LinkedIn profile. The real issue is one of engagement. If you’re reading this, decent chance you work in recruiting, sales, or marketing. Why? Because engineers, auditors, nurses, CEOs, etc don’t really engage much with LinkedIn on a regular basis. In fact, according to the PEW Research Center, 46% of LinkedIn users log in less than once a week, whereas 70% of Facebook users log in daily. That’s huge. If you happen to watch Silicon Valley (if you don’t, it’s so worth watching), you’ll be familiar with the critical importance of daily average users – basically, if that’s a low number, than you’re doing something wrong…

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And, not to beat on this too much, but that percent of disengagement is highest with engineers – I talk to a lot of them, and by and large they ignore LinkedIn & LinkedIn inmails, unless they’re actively looking for a job. If they’re passive, it ain’t happening. They talk ruefully about “LinkedIn recruiter spam”, and how they just have LinkedIn emails directing to their email spam folder. A lot of them are so sick of the service, they’re deleting their accounts.

The danger, to me – and this is selfish – lies in how hugely reliant the recruitment industry has become on LinkedIn, and it’s pricey Recruiter seats. The company has done an exceptional job selling and marketing itself to executives, That “we have X number of users” line I mentioned earlier? It’s catnip to CEO’s – they essentially insist their recruiting department fork over large percents (like, say, 50%) of their tight budgets to LinkedIn. The down-the-line impact is that there’s a lot less budget for tools that actually work for finding engineers, etc (Stack Overflow, Entelo, HiringSolved, etc etc). And, a lot of recruiters think “hey, if I send out 50 inmails a day, and look at 200 profiles, then I’m doing my job”, so it becomes a crutch – one that gets in the way of them actually doing their real job: getting top talent hired as fast as possible.

Beyond that, there’s the very real security risk. Hackers are generally very smart – and they know how to use social engineering. LinkedIn is ideal for that. Create a real enough presence on the site, with multiple “real” profiles, and target high-value individuals with connection requests. Then, start asking for expertise, and create a connection. And then take it deeper and deeper, until you have enough data from your target (email address, personal info, etc etc) that you can gain access to their employer and its systems. Dell’s cyber security team recently uncovered a hacking attempt by an Iranian group using false profiles, as one example. This isn’t, of course, limited to LinkedIn (all social networks face this challenge), but it’s increasingly becoming their social network of choice for activity like this.

End of the day, and this rant, it comes down to this: LinkedIn needs to clean their data up, and it’s not even that challenging. I mean – there are over 200 fake profiles on LinkedIn that use the word “douche” as part of their name. They could pay a couple of interns to sit there for a week, get creative, and get to cleaning, and it would be a big step forward. I suspect the issue is – and I’ll admit I’m cynical – that they know this would damage their numbers, and that hurts sales in the short term. Long term, this is now Microsofts’s issue. Wonder if anyone asked Bill Gates to see how many profiles he has on the site…

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