Social networking is a phrase almost certainly dreamed up by some smart aleck who thought they'd make a fast buck from telling the uninspired the perfectly obvious: that marrying a social element to a business could make you more popular and successful.

Cynics might suggest that the term isn't that far removed from social engineering. And it's true that becoming a successful social networker involves more skill and calculation than pure sociability.

Some of the new contacts seeking us out on Twitter are of the ‘social networks are the future' variety, hoping to expand their influence in the industry. A second set have no apparent motive for wanting to ‘follow' us, and appear to be building up a base of contacts that they can then sell on to the highest bidder.

LinkedIn - probably the best-known of the business-centric networking platforms - seems not to suffer from the same issue, not least because links are forged between you and people you already know, and with their trusted acquaintances. Random invitations are far less likely - and less likely to be fake or malicious.

The site serves to connect colleagues and ex-colleagues with potential employers and employees. It offers a trusted pool of contractors, freelancers and experts you can call on. By sanctioning someone, you put your own reputation on the line.

Another element that can't be ignored is the economic one: if your current employer has to shut up shop or reduce its workforce, forging new contacts and new avenues for potential employment makes sense. It's a sad fact that LinkedIn has become more active of late, largely because people believe their jobs are unsafe.

Social networking isn't without its pitfalls. If you're not sure of someone's motives - or that they are who they say they are, or know who they say they do - ignore them. But if you can make web-based networking work for you, you stand to gain on several levels. Here, we'll show you how.

1. Go to to register. You have to fill in some basic details about yourself and your current or planned business sector. There are more than 36 million LinkedIn users worldwide and the site lists some 170 industries - align yourself to both a broad and a more focused business area.

LinkedIn: step 1

2. Now you need to expand your profile, outlining qualifications, skills and experience. What you say here will act as a form of CV. Consider carefully what contact information you're happy to share. Similarly, don't forget to list your previous positions so past colleagues and associates can find you.

LinkedIn: step 2