One of the most common questions I am asked when speaking to groups about marketing on LinkedIn is “should I accept or decline that invitation“?

It's a good question, and my answer is…it depends.

What you want to do on LinkedIn is build a smart network.

If you limit who you connect with to only the people you know (as LinkedIn suggests), you're potentially going to miss out on the massive networking and business building opportunities that LinkedIn affords. Every time you connect with someone new, you gain exposure to their network.

Additionally, one of the primary ways your profile can be found on LinkedIn is through LinkedIn people searches. Did you know that in 2012 LinkedIn had nearly 6 billion people searches? Simply by virtue of who you are connected with, you can show up in search results, regardless if the searcher was looking for you or not.

LinkedIn search has improved dramatically in recent months, and due to all of the data LinkedIn has collected on its members, it's getting much smarter.  LinkedIn is becoming the default search engine for professionals, businesses, and corporations.

The simple math is this:  the more people you are connected to, the more opportunities you have to get found on LinkedIn. As you grow your network, you will see how it can impact your opportunities.

Here's an example: I conducted a LinkedIn search for “attorneys in Arizona” to help out a client who is one of my 1st degree connections. I was looking for other professionals in his city that he could reach out to and connect with. What showed up at the top of my search results was indeed an attorney in Arizona. I immediately saw we shared a mutual connection. Through this mutual connection, I could facilitate an introduction for my client. A random search result became a meaningful one.

Where and when your profile shows up on LinkedIn very much depends on the size and scope of your network.

Although size does matter, you don't want to connect with just anyone on LinkedIn. It is prudent to have some connection rules as your build your network in order to make it as intelligent as possible.

At a recent conference where I was speaking on LinkedIn, a senior level executive raised her hand and voiced her personal concerns about connecting with people she knew within and outside of her company. She just really wasn't comfortable with some of  her direct reports and other colleagues knowing what she was up to and who she was connecting with on LinkedIn. My response was, “well…what if you lost your job?” (it does happen).

Deciding who you connect with is a personal decision, but I believe you should build a powerful network today because you never know when you will need it in the future. Life happens. I left a 15 year career in corporate America and completely reinvented myself. LinkedIn saved me. Also, what if at some point in the future LinkedIn decides to charge you for each new connection you add? Doesn't seem likely, but you never know what can happen with publicly traded companies that have to generate revenues and profits eventually.

Below is a brief list of the criteria I utilize when deciding who to accept invitations from on LinkedIn. In a nutshell, it depends on your personal and business goals.

How to Build an Intelligent Network on LinkedIn

Must Haves: Professional Image and Headline

I will not connect with anyone who does not have a professional image or headline. This includes using a business logo as an image. If you don't look credible or legitimate (even if you are), I won't connect with you. This has proven to be a very good criteria for making sure my connections are high quality.

National or Local?

Is it important for you to grow your visibility and expand your reach nationwide, or only in your local market? My business is nationwide. Therefore, I don't discriminate based on geographical location other than sticking to people who live in the United States and Canada (although not always). Decide where the people are that you want to reach and be open to connecting with those who are legitimate.

Industry Specific

My connections tend to focus in 3 places:  prospects and clients within the industry I sell to, people who work within the same industry I do, and my local professional network. There are some odds and ends connections in my network as well such as those people who have seen me speak or have become fans of my work. I connect with them too. Today's intern could be tomorrow's VP.

Mutual Connections or Group Memberships?

Be sure to check out whether or not you share connections or group memberships with people who invite you to connect. Recently I was about to decline an invitation until I looked at our mutual connections. It turned out that we were both connected to a couple of very influential people, and I happen to know that these influential people don't just connect to anyone. Therefore, I decided to accept the connection.

For the time being, you can also send or receive a LinkedIn invitation from anyone you share a group with. This is often a great way to connect with people in your target markets without having to have their email address!

Think Beyond Clients and Customers

You may feel that unless the person you accept an invitation from or send an invitation to has the potential to qualify as a new client, it's not worth your time to connect. This is a huge mistake. You must think beyond clients and customers. You never know who can LEAD to a new client or customer. For years one of my biggest referral sources was someone who would have never qualified to be a client.

Think about the types of people your clients and customers might know and interact with such as community leaders, business owners, executives, professionals, non-profit board members, etc.

New connections on LinkedIn can lead to prospects, clients, business advocates, media or speaking gigs, opportunities to refer or connect others, new business partners, new hires, new career opportunities, new friends, and more.

Don't Be Afraid to Remove Connections

Anytime I connect with someone and soon after they send me some sort of message pitching a product, service, event, etc. I remove them as a connection immediately. I've definitely made some mistakes in the connections I've accepted. You will too.

Your Turn

If you're not at the point yet where you are receiving more invitations than you are sending on LinkedIn, you will get there. Just keep working proactively to grow your network and consider using some of the criteria above to help you determine who to send and accept invitations from.

Remember, people want to connect with influencers. If you build influence on LinkedIn by being active and consistently adding value to your network, you will receive more and more invitations. You never know where your connections can lead you.

How do you decide who to connect with on LinkedIn? What kind of discretion do you use when accepting invitations? What are your thoughts about determining who to connect with? I know there are lots of varying opinions on this so I'd love to get your take.