Like other good social network tools, LinkedIn succeeded by finding a niche. While MySpace became the network for teens and Facebook did the same for college students, LinkedIn has become a robust networking site for businesspeople, with a special focus on helping people network to find jobs.
But there's more to a professional life than finding a job or hiring people for your business. LinkedIn today is rolling out its new service for personal service providers ("PSPs"), the people we hire outside of our work life. LinkedIn now allows its members to recommend and endorse people--dentists, mechanics, nannies, and so on--who are not LinkedIn members. The new directory makes it easy to narrow down the listings--for example, to display only dentists in your area that have been recommended by people you know directly. If you want to contact somebody, you don't have to request that their endorsers make the connection. However, you can't simply send them an e-mail, either--you must use LinkedIn's own e-mail forwarding system, or if the PSP is signed up for the $60 Personal Plus account, you can call them on a toll-free number provided by LinkedIn.
The only way PSPs can get into the new LinkedIn service provider directory is to be recommended by a LinkedIn member. This is a change from the old LinkedIn model, where all providers were listed regardless of recommendation.
As a concept, I think this is great. There are dozens of useful service provider and consumer review directories out there, but this system makes it easier than any I've used to find recommendations for services I need from people I trust. In practice, the directory is new and sparsely populated (I found only one recommended real estate professional in my first-degree network), but it has potential. It will grow if PSPs learn to ask their customers for LinkedIn endorsements.
Ultimately, I'd like to see a combination of this personal referral system with a bid management system, such as the one in ServiceMagic. But this is a great start.