Harnessing the Web to Boost Your Career

Impress colleagues and customers--and maybe your next boss--with a strong online persona.

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This is what's in my Internet tool box: a variety of news and business podcasts that I listen to when I exercise, a personalized Google page, a LinkedIn profile for networking, and a personal website for promoting myself. I don't find blogs, instant messaging, or text messaging useful, but others do—and if they come in handy someday, at least I know how to use them.

Good Web skills are as important in the workplace these days as leadership abilities and a strong work ethic. But many professionals could use a primer or refresher course. With so many gizmos and online offerings, it's hard to know what's useful and what's not. Some tools meant to boost productivity or enhance your professional standing can have the opposite effect if misused. Certain social networking sites might be ideal for one profession, but shunned by another. Anybody can Google himself, to see how he comes across on the Web—but if you don't like what you find, what can you do about it?

We have answers. Since your Internet IQ will play a big role in your career success, we've assembled a guide to the most important Web skills today's professionals need to navigate the workplace and job market. Here are the essentials:

An awareness of popular technologies. Know the difference between instant messaging and text messaging? Do you have a good handle on all the blogs and newsfeeds relevant to your field? It's not necessary to use all of these tools, but you should scope them out and understand how they work. Then you can figure out which might help raise your profile or allow you to work more efficiently. Instant messaging might be good for chatting briefly with colleagues who work in different locations. Social networking websites can help you land a new job or scope out a potential customer. Your own website might be worth the trouble if there's a lot of personal work for you to showcase.

A strong online presence. Surveys by job-placement firms like Execunet and Careerbuilder show that recruiters use the Internet extensively to vet job applicants. Recruiters look favorably on candidates whose online material reflects a professional image, well-rounded skills, and a fitting personality. There are numerous ways to trumpet your talents on the Web, some as simple as claiming your own page, free, on a networking site like Facebook or LinkedIn. Or you might decide on something more complex, like building your own site with back-end tricks for drawing a lot of traffic. Once you figure out which tools are best for you, it's well worth making the investment.

A network. There's nothing new about the value of an extensive list of professional contacts, the more well connected the better. Except that today, much of the schmoozing happens online. Networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and even the role-playing site SecondLife can be invaluable tools for getting to know like-minded colleagues or finding a job. They vary in terms of tone, user community, and focus, though, so it pays to get familiar with several of them, then build a profile on one or two that seem most useful.

A clean record. As quickly as companies are adapting new technologies, they're also clamping down on employees who misuse them. A small but growing number of companies have fired employees for inappropriate use of blogs or IMs. An Execunet survey found that 35 percent of recruiters have ruled out job candidates based on what they found on a Google search. So make sure you avoid online career killers. And if there are a few regrettable pictures or postings on the Web that you don't want colleagues to see, you might be able to expunge them, or at least lower their standing in search results.

Courtesy and common sense. Yes, they still matter. The Web might offer a degree of anonymity, but that's no reason to abandon any sense of discretion. And rudeness remains a disqualifier. Surprising as it may seem, recruiters report that significant numbers of job applicants try to tap out E-mails during an interview—when their electronic gizmos should be turned off and stowed. Some employees like to show off new technologies they've figured out, even if it's unseemly—and annoying—for a 55-year-old boomer to be tickling his boss's phone with continual text messages. And some people accept total strangers or other odd characters into their online network, even though they'd never do that in person. It's a brave new world online, but there are still a few old standards that apply.