Editor’s note: Neal Schaffer is the author of Maximize Your Social: A One-Stop Guide to Building a Social Media Strategy for Marketing and Business Success.

If you’ve been in today’s job market for more than five minutes, you know that it’s a complex, competitive, even cutthroat environment that’s difficult to navigate. Not only is the market overflowing with highly qualified individuals, but to complicate matters, the job search and application functions of yesteryear are no longer valid. If you simply update your résumé and (e-)mail it off to a hiring manager, you’ll probably be left twiddling your thumbs for a long, long time while other applicants get all the interviews.

Whether you like it or not, you need to take your job search on the social media road. But even then, there are numerous do-and-don’t rules you need to follow. And the most important place of all to cross your t’s and dot your i’s is your LinkedIn profile.

LinkedIn continues to evolve at a fast pace but many job seekers’ profiles are stuck in past years. That’s a big problem, because an increasing number of businesses use LinkedIn to find prospective employees and fill openings.

146865807So if you want to maximize your chances of landing that interview, you need to consider your LinkedIn profile to be the front page for “The Web site of you” – a place that summarizes who you are, what you represent, what your professional history is and your area of expertise.

If you’re asking, “Why LinkedIn?” the answer is clear: It’s a professionally-geared site that’s focused on the quality, rather than the quantity, of its users – meaning that it’s fertile ground on which to find and develop meaningful networking connections.

From a demographic perspective, LinkedIn is very different from other social media channels in that it has a very influential, affluent, and educated audience. According to reported data, more business decision makers, people with household incomes exceeding $100,000, and college and postgraduates are LinkedIn users than the physical distribution audience of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely the group to whom I want to be showcasing my skills and experience.

Whatever activity you do on LinkedIn, it will always lead people back to your profile.

Think of all the time and effort that businesses put into investing in creating a well-branded and strategic Web site. Have you spent even a fraction of that time thinking about how to create a strong professional LinkedIn presence?

If not (and even if you think you have your bases covered), read on for 17 LinkedIn profile must-haves. (You can also explore them in an infographic I developed with Tammy Kahn Fennell, founder and CEO of the social media dashboard MarketMeSuite.)

Must-have #1: A serious photo. You should always have a professional picture. In other words, wear office-appropriate attire and avoid distracting backgrounds. And no cocktail-in-hand photos or on-the-beach vacation shots.

You might be tempted to just go photo-less if you don’t already have an appropriate picture but keep in mind that having a visual will increase your click-through rate after people find you in LinkedIn search results. Actually, LinkedIn itself has asserted that profiles with photos are 7x more likely to be viewed by others. And, besides, if you want to make a deeper connection with someone, shouldn’t you be showing your real face?

Must-have #2: A professional name. Trawl LinkedIn for a little while and you’ll probably come across individuals who use keywords, or even worse, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, as part of their names.

When you employ this tactic, you may think you’re making yourself more conspicuous and/or more accessible, but the truth is, you look cheesy – and I can tell that you’re blatantly trying to sell me on something, which is a turn-off. LinkedIn is the most trusted social network out there, so you should have a name that is cognizant of its professional atmosphere. Stay away from gimmicky nicknames. You’ll have plenty of other areas in your profile where you can differentiate yourself.

Must-have #3: A headline that reinforces your professional brand. Speaking of areas to differentiate yourself, look no further than your professional headline; in other words, the 110 characters that appear prominently just under your name both on your profile and, more importantly, on search results. You don’t need to put here that you are TITLE at COMPANY NAME – viewers can see that in your profile.

Instead, you need to include information in your professional headline that will draw your potential visitor into wanting to find out more about you. Be explicit as to how you can help people – but do it in a professional and well-branded manner. Overtly selling to people in your professional headline feels like a slap in the face to many a LinkedIn user. For instance, here are some headline turn-offs:

Call me to hear why I’m the last branding consultant you’ll ever need to hire. Directly asking for a phone call is inappropriate for a professionally-branded headline.

Tri-state businesses get a free logo redesign. This headline makes you look desperate for business.

Bet your business doesn’t show up in the top 10 Google and LinkedIn results. But I can make it happen. This headline is provocative, not to mention questionable in terms of truth.

Ouch. Now, let’s look at some examples of professionals who add value with their headlines – and who are undoubtedly attracting more inviting contacts:

Providing thought leadership and compelling content in public relations @ XYZ Company.

Bilingual human resources professional with 15 years’ direct experience.

A proven track record in the financial services industry.

Much better, wouldn’t you agree?

Must-have #4: An optimized location. On LinkedIn, it’s sometimes best for your stated location not to match your physical one. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of your target visitor.

For instance, I live in Orange County, Calif., but if I were in charge of a territory that was primarily centered around Los Angeles, I would want to change my location to Los Angeles. This location change makes me more approachable in my target market because I’m considered “local” and it also means I get found in more relevant search results because many are using the location feature as a filter.

Must-have #5: An optimized industry. Much like optimizing your location, think about what the people with whom you’re trying to connect might type into the industry field during a search. This can be tough, I admit, because even individuals who work at the same company might list different industries here.

Note that if you upgrade to a paid LinkedIn account, your complete “Who’s Viewed Your Profile” will also include data as to which industries best represent the visitors to your profile. Regardless, you might have to do some experimenting in this area. While not everyone uses the industry feature to filter search results, you should still put your best foot forward and experiment in seeing how changing your industry might affect your profile views.

Must-have #6: A customized profile URL. LinkedIn provides you with a default URL that you can – and should – customize. Some talk about the SEO benefits of doing so, but I suggest looking at your LinkedIn URL in a simpler way.

Once you’re invested in LinkedIn as part of your professional infrastructure, you’ll probably want to include your LinkedIn URL in your e-mail signature or even print it on your business card.

Must-have #7: Strong status updates. Posting constant updates about our lives has become a common part of our culture but as you probably suspect, your LinkedIn updates shouldn’t reflect your political opinions, announce your child’s achievements or comment on the latest reality TV twist. For that reason, many users simply skip status updates altogether. But that’s a mistake too.

When someone finally lands on your profile, your activity section will show your latest status update, if you have one. This is the only dynamically-updated part of your profile that gives others the ability to see what’s on your mind, so get into the habit of updating your status on a regular basis. Sharing thoughtful, insightful and relevant news that might interest your target visitor just once a day is a great way to keep your professional profile fresh as well as engage with your own network of connections!

Must-have #8: A compelling professional summary. If done effectively, one of the most time-consuming items on this checklist will be writing a well-crafted and branded professional summary. But don’t worry – the effort will be worth it.

Your professional summary should support what you say in your headline and expand upon its branding, as well as potentially end with a good call-to-action. This is how you close the deal: by making sure that, after your profile visitors read your professional summary, they will be sold on you and want to initiate contact.

Must-have #9: A window into your past. Your LinkedIn profile is about helping you get found. It is an inbound marketing tool. That’s why it’s important to connect the dots with your past, so that as many people as possible can find you – and so that you can find them.

Don’t stop at your current employer. Go back in history and fill in every employer you’ve ever worked for and every educational institution you’ve attended. I go as far back as high school on my own profile, and even include short-term study-abroad programs, which have helped me restore old ties with valued professionals in my network.

Must-have #10: Valuable keywords. Many LinkedIn users a) haven’t leveraged keywords enough or b) have overstuffed their profiles with keywords to the point of meaninglessness.

To avoid falling into either of these traps, search for keywords that you’re thinking of using in your own profile. Examine the profiles of those that appear in the top few results, paying attention to the location and frequency of the keywords. Now take that knowledge and apply it to your own profile.

Must-have #11: Credibility-enhancing recommendations. With all of the quid pro quo recommendations you see out there, many people wonder whether LinkedIn recommendations should be taken seriously. Yes, very much so – because they can help you establish credibility if someone viewing your profile doesn’t know you.

When I speak on LinkedIn, I often talk about how I was looking for a realtor on LinkedIn and found three good-looking profiles. One had zero recommendations, another had two and another had more than 30. Who do you think I first contacted? You don’t need to have 30-plus recommendations but remember that every genuine recommendation helps to establish your credibility.

Must-have #12: Well-managed endorsements. Of all the features that LinkedIn has released, endorsements are the one that have stirred the most controversy in the professional community. I recommend that you ignore that controversy and utilize whatever functionality LinkedIn provides you. For instance, some believe that endorsements might affect how you appear in LinkedIn search results.

You should make sure that the people you’d most like to be associated with your brand comprise all of the maximum 50 endorsements you can display. Let them show off your skill set and provide your profile with a little bit more credibility (although not nearly as much credibility as having good recommendations, of course).

Must-have #13: Curated visuals. LinkedIn gives you the ability to upload contents from a link (presentations from SlideShare or Prezi; videos from YouTube or Vimeo; and documents from Scribd are all supported) or directly from your computer (in addition to images, PDF, Word and PowerPoint presentations are supported). If you’ve ever been interviewed or had your picture taken at a professional event, this is your chance to promote yourself by adding these visual elements.

But don’t stop there: this is the area where you can be as creative as you want to be. Even uploading your standard corporate presentation will at least provide something for your viewers to look at – and it might provide you business benefits as well!

Must-have #14: Clear contact information. Don’t make it hard for other users to contact you: If they can’t easily get in touch, they might just move on to the next person! Remember, if you’re a third-degree connection or beyond, many people won’t go through the hassle of sending a high-risk introduction or buying an InMail in order to initiate a conversation.

LinkedIn gives you the ability to include your contact details, such as up to three Web sites and a Twitter handle, for anyone to see. There is also an “Advice for Contacting [Name]” section where you could include your e-mail address and/or phone number. You also have the option to subscribe to the LinkedIn Personal Plus account plan and, for a low price, join the OpenLink Network, giving those not in your network the opportunity to e-mail you without having to pay for it.

Must-have #15: Membership in relevant groups. Joining LinkedIn groups is about enhancing your contactability. Joining the same group allows others to contact you using the group messaging feature. So which LinkedIn groups should you become part of?

You don’t have to join the maximum 50 but at least join a few groups that are related to your industry, discipline  or location – not to mention alumni groups from your university or even previous workplaces. If you haven’t been active in groups before, you might be surprised as to the business opportunities that exist within them! Even if you don’t have time to be active, displaying those group logos on your profile increases your contactability.

Must-have #16: Customized sections. While this might not apply to everyone, many LinkedIn users should be leveraging their profiles’ sections. LinkedIn gives you the ability to add a number of additional items to your profile called sections, including projects, test scores, courses, patents, certifications and volunteering and causes. If these are important to you or your professional brand, you’ll want to make sure they’re part of your professional profile.

Must-have #17: Connections. My final tip isn’t related to filling out your profile but to how many people might find and interact with you on LinkedIn. Simply put, if you don’t have enough LinkedIn connections, you might not show up on as many LinkedIn searches as a second degree connection. From an outbound networking perspective, you also won’t discover many of the hidden connections that exist all around you. Those are uncovered only when 1) you have a specific objective to search for and 2) you have a robust network.

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After you’ve used this checklist to evaluate and tweak your LinkedIn profile, ask someone you trust to do the same. You might be surprised by what they find! Remember, when it comes to your profile, the opinion that matters most is that of the person who’s looking at it, not your own. Once you finish auditing and overhauling your LinkedIn profile, I think you’ll notice a difference in your job-hunting fortunes. So brush off your interview suit and start networking!