In a world where business networks and relationships are often sustained in virtual reality, having an online presence is increasingly critical to career success. That's why a number of professional recruiters say that strategic use of LinkedIn is a smart move.

"The two best ways for a job seeker to be found are to either post a resume on a job board, which is a headache to manage, or set up a LinkedIn profile," says Paul DeBettignies, founder of the MN Headhunter recruiting blog and an occasional speaker to business group on using LinkedIn tools. "With the latter, people can really tailor their messages and make good use of key industry words or acronyms, because that's what recruiters use to conduct an online search."

Unlike social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, LinkedIn is specifically designed as an online resource to highlight business accomplishments and build professional contacts. The distinction has helped the site increase its user base by nearly 200 percent in the past year, according to Nielsen Online research, with substantial gains among workers in all age groups between 25-64.

For those who still have not established a LinkedIn profile, DeBettignies offers three key reasons why it might be worthwhile:

Extended Networking.

On LinkedIn, a user can add a virtually unlimited number of contacts from their own professional or personal network. Every time a user adds a contact, they gain access to that person's network (unless they choose to restrict views of those names). If a job seeker wants to connect with a resource in this extended network, they can ask the friend or colleague in their own contact list to provide an online introduction.

Easier Research.

LinkedIn allows users to research job openings in several different ways, including employer name, market niche or geographic location. By keying in the name of a specific firm, a user can also call up a list of LinkedIn members within each company. That search often yields a treasure trove of hiring managers or HR staff that can be helpful to a job search.

Better Visibility.

DeBettignies says a simple - and often overlooked - step to maximizing LinkedIn visibility is to add a link to the user's e-mail signature block. That enables interested parties to check out the page on a regular basis. "If a person is posting on blogs or professional discussions, that's a great way for others in their industry to take a closer look at who they are."

Brett Pyrtle is a writer and communications consultant based in St. Paul.