It's not unusual for me to hear job seekers balk at the idea of connecting with people on LinkedIn that they don't know well. They typically have less than 30 or 40 connections, and believe that much more than that would "dilute the quality" of their network. They often say "quality is better than quantity".
While I can respect their argument, I wholeheartedly disagree… especially during a job search. Here's why…
While it's good to have a profile on LinkedIn in the hopes of being "found" for appropriate opportunities, the far greater value of LinkedIn in your job search is the ability to find people at target companies or in your field that can be great networking contacts or potential employers.
Greater Numbers = Greater Results. The only way to find people on LinkedIn is through searches, and your search results are fruitful in proportion to the number of your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level connections. The fewer connections you have, the fewer results you will get in your searches. The more 1st level connections you have, the overall number of people in your network grows exponentially. While a profile with 20 1st level connections may only search through a few thousand people, even as few as 70 connections can potentially reach a million profiles. A couple hundred connections can potentially gain you access to a few million profiles, and over 1,000 connections can allow you to search over 10 Million or more! The larger your network, the more profiles are scanned when you run a search, and the greater likelihood you will find the results you need. In your job search, those results are critical for you to connect with the people that can benefit you.
You're likely keeping your close connections anyway. If you're only connecting to people you know well on LinkedIn, what added value does that provide you? You are likely to remember and keep those contacts whether you had LinkedIn or not. The added value LinkedIn can provide is access to others that you wouldn't connect to otherwise. Expanding your network is a way that can be a benefit to you in your job search and in the rest of your career. You're likely to find the broader network to be a benefit once you're in a job as well. Other people in your industry or field can be tremendous resources when you have issues where you can use some advice.
Most everyone else is looking to expand their network as well. The majority of other people with profiles on LinkedIn are there in order to improve their professional networking too. It's very rare for someone to turn down an invitation, because generally they realize the benefit of a larger network for themselves. Reaching out to others is not an imposition on others, rather it's a win-win and a mutual benefit.
So… how should you start?
Send invitations to everyone you know! Do a search of the previous companies you've worked for and find all the people you've worked with and for earlier in your career. You'll generally find that even people that you haven't talked to in 20 years or didn't like will be glad to "reconnect" on LinkedIn. Send each of them invitations, for your benefit and theirs. Keep in mind, that it's not important whether any one individual is a "good" contact for you or not, the value is in gaining access to all the people they are connected to, and to all the people that are connected to their connections. The numbers can be staggering. Don't have their email address? If you worked at the company, you're familiar with the standard email format and you're likely to be able to easily deduce their address. Send it… if you were wrong, the email will bounce back and there's no problem.
Use LinkedIn's email search tool. It can automatically scan your Outlook contacts or other email client that you may use and match up all the email addresses you have to people already on LinkedIn. You can then select which ones you want to invite and LinkedIn will handle the rest.
Look up friends, family, bowling teammates, other parents from your kids sports teams, professional association colleagues, and anyone else you can think of! Don't think "who would be a good contact", rather think "is there any reason I wouldn't connect to this person?" Default to connecting rather than not connecting. It's not the person you connect with that is as important as all of their 1st and 2nd level connections.
Join Groups! LinkedIn has thousands of "Groups" related to almost anything you can imagine. Groups based on Geography, Industries, Professions, Hobbies, Clubs, Technologies, Tools, or virtually any thing else. When you join a group, all other group members automatically are scanned when you run a search. So if you join one group that has 10,000 members, you've increased the possibility of results from your search by 10,000 additional people. Find appropriate groups for your location and industry and you're results can improve dramatically.
Connect to connectors! There are a number of people on LinkedIn that have thousands, and tens of thousands of 1st level connections themselves. They accept all invitations and aggressively seek new connections themselves. When you connect to someone that has thousands of connections, your searchable numbers increase markedly… you are not only gaining their thousands of first level connections, however, the connections of all of those connections as well.
Don't limit the benefit LinkedIn can be in your job search! To gain the maximum benefit, you need to connect to as many people as you can. You can also find great benefit in the larger network in the rest of your career!