Given the number of times I get asked this question, each week, I reckon it’s high time I wrote up an article on the subject — especially given that this question has become something of a “moving target” in recent years.  What I mean by this is that LinkedIn has been making major changes to their functionality lately, typically with no prior notice, and these changes are having a significant impact on the free vs. paid discussion.  In fact, the advice I’m sharing in this article could easily become outdated in a few weeks or months, so please keep that in mind as you review my thoughts below.

Here’s the long and short of it, however.  If you’re an active job seeker or somebody who needs to do a bunch of networking on a daily basis, and you can reasonably afford to do so, I’d suggest you upgrade to one of the site’s basic subscription packages.  Or at least sign up for a 30-day free trial and see what you think of the enhanced premium functionality.  Given the changes the site has made recently, a subscription will give you more information about people, more ways to contact them, and enable a range of other small benefits (too numerous to list, but spelled out here) for somewhere in the range of $30/month.  So while you may decide to cancel your subscription the moment any further “power usage” of the site is no longer needed, we’ve gotten to the point where for many active job hunters, it’s time to pay to play.

As for the rest of us, including myself, you can still soldier on as free user — and accomplish quite a bit — but you’re going to run into more and more limitations.  As you’ll see below, in fact, LinkedIn has instituted several recent changes that represent a major shift in the site’s core philosophy and that have made it harder for free members to use the tool effectively.  Here are the three most significant developments I’d encourage you to take into consideration as you make your own decision on the “free account vs. paid account” front:

1. The “Get Introduced” feature is currently broken (and I anticipate that it won’t be fixed). Since LinkedIn was first launched, the ability to send an “introduction” note between two parties has always been a core component of the system’s functionality and one I’ve stressed that people learn, master, and use frequently.  Alas, despite LinkedIn’s own help menu instructions here, this feature no longer seems to work and now takes you to a dead-end on the system.  While the powers-that-be at LinkedIn say they’re working on fixing this, I don’t believe them.  This seems like way too big of a bug to have happened inadvertently.  Instead, I think they’re trying to train people to live without this feature so that they’ll be tempted to pay for “InMail” credits, instead, which allow premium users to reach out to people on the system directly, with no introduction.

The free workaround: Instead of using the introduction feature, click the green “shared connections” link on the search results page (or look on the right side of the target person’s full profile) to determine who you know that knows the individual you’re looking to meet.  Once you’ve determined this, open the profile of the mutual friend and hit the blue “Send Message” button to send them a note asking them to help you get in touch with the person intended.   I do this regularly and it works like a champ, even though I prefer the simplicity of the old “Get Introduced” method much better…

2. You can no longer see how you’re connected to a 3rd Degree connection.  After scouring the web high and low, I’m kind of shocked that more users of the site aren’t squawking about this.  Again, despite the underlying principle of LinkedIn being to help amplify one’s networking efforts, and in stark contrast to how the site has always worked in the past, I noticed several weeks ago that you can no longer see the chain of relationships connecting you to a 3rd Degree contact.  You can’t even see the name of the person who is the “first link” on the chain.  So for all practical purposes, this means that there’s no longer any way to get personally introduced to a “friend of a friend of a friend” on the system.  The only way you can contact a 3rd degree party is to become a paid member and then use the InMail feature to send that person a “cold” note.

The free workaround: While you can no longer see who connects you to a 3rd Degree contact, you can still open the target person’s profile and use the “Connect” button to try routing an invitation along to the individual in question — in the hopes they’ll respond — although many LinkedIn users won’t accept connection requests from strangers.  Alternatively, you can scan the profile of the 3rd Degree contact to see if they happen to list their e-mail address or phone number somewhere, allowing you to make contact.  Or you could really go old school and just look up their company on Google and try calling them.  But if you’re looking for a quick, easy, and convenient way to reach out to a 3rd Degree contact, your only option at this point is the InMail feature — which is exactly how I suspect LinkedIn wants things to be.

3. You can only run so many searches before you hit a “commercial use” limit.  While this restriction has been around since the beginning of this year, and is explained by LinkedIn here, many free users today still feel totally blindsided when they finally get the hang of the site and its capabilities — but suddenly are informed they can no longer run any more searches in a given month due to the “commercial use” restriction above.  What’s more, LinkedIn doesn’t actually TELL you how many searches you can run before reaching the limit.  The number is kept secret.  So you’ll be jamming along, doing some networking on the site, and suddenly you’ll be blocked from running further searches and an advertisement will pop up encouraging you to purchase more bandwidth by becoming a paid user.  The weird part, though?  I’ve had a number of people agree to this, and upgrade to a paid account, but then they STILL run into the “limit” very soon afterwards.  So in terms of this particular issue, it doesn’t appear that a paid membership (at least any of the ones that are affordable to the average user) are going to get you as far as hoped.

The free workaround: Unfortunately, I don’t have any brilliant suggestions for getting around this restriction, but there a number of articles out there that do have a few recommendations — including the one here, which I thought was the best of the lot.  Again, I’m not sure if all the advice in this article still holds true given how fast things change on the site, but it’s worth checking out.  Ultimately, though, if one chronically runs into this issue it may simply come down to “picking your battles” more and only running those searches most critical to your needs.

Anybody out there have any insights into the value of free vs. paid memberships, from personal experience?  Or any creative suggestions for working around the increasing number of bugs/limitations of the site?  Like I said at the start of the article, it’s a moving target, but I know there are tons of you out there using the system and I’d encourage you to chime in with any other helpful input you might be willing to share…