The Internet offers a convenient way for accountants to network around the clock. Online networking — connecting with others through forums, message boards, and e-mail — also provides an opportunity to educate yourself about potential future employers and to revive contacts you’ve lost touch with. Yet, it is not without its pitfalls. Unlike face-to-face networking, interacting with people via the Internet means you don’t always know who you are really communicating with.

Follow these tips to help you maneuver online networking communities to further your professional goals:

Target appropriate sites. There are literally thousands of accounting-oriented online communities, so take the time to find the ones that suit your needs. Start by asking friends and colleagues which sites they’ve found most useful. Tap into professional accounting associations for recommendations and ask if they have message boards. Also consider signing up for sites offered by your alma mater.

Some of the top professional networking sites include LinkedIn.com and Ryze.com. Others, such as NetParty.com, which holds events in various cities nationwide, target young professionals. There also are lists offered on mega-sites, such as Yahoo.com.

Keep in mind your target audience — accounting executives and potential colleagues who can offer advice and information on companies you are interested in researching — and be discriminating about which sites you invest the time to join. Find out how the site handles personal information you provide when registering; make sure to read the privacy policy before you submit all of your data and agree to the site’s terms. Also be careful of which boxes you check off on your registration list. For example, decide which profile details you are willing to make public.

Maintain your professional demeanor. Don’t let the convenience of online networking allow you to drop your guard. Although you may be visiting a site at 11:00 p.m. while you are sitting in your jeans in front of your home computer, remain professional. The same rules that apply to business e-mail etiquette apply to online forums. Never post anything you might regret at a later date, and avoid gossip and controversial topics. While you might learn something by lurking and reading a dicey ongoing discussion about a company or an executive in your industry, ask yourself if you have anything to gain by chiming in with your two cents. In other words, never hit the send button if you even feel the slightest twinge of discomfort about your message’s content.

Also decide just how far you are willing to go when joining a network: Will you post photos of yourself? Do you want to provide personal information such as your dog’s name, the last vacation you took and your hobbies? Remember that future employers can search for information about you, and the information you put online is virtually permanent.

Set a strategy for targeting individuals you want to get to know. Online networking can serve as a way to get your foot in the door at a variety of companies. Once you find a site you feel is on target with your professional goals, read through it and get a feel for like-minded people who might be able to help you. Don’t hesitate to send a message to an individual on the board who you think sounds legitimate. If you do establish rapport with someone who appears particularly tapped into your industry, take the time to nurture the contact. Once you’ve earned that person’s trust, move the relationship forward by asking if he or she can refer you to others in your field.

When posting a request, be specific and to the point. If you are seeking information on a particular company, use the organization’s name in your subject line. In the body of your copy, state your research request and offer people the opportunity to respond directly to you. That way, you can keep your correspondence offline and private.

Ultimately, you need to create and maintain relationships both online and offline. If you’ve developed a good rapport with someone via the Internet, by all means meet in person for coffee or lunch, whenever geography permits. While the Web allows you to expand your online network, meeting someone face-to-face will help you maintain and solidify your contacts.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is one of the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. The company has more than 350 locations in North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalf.com.