In the modern world, getting a job is always difficult. Even if the market is booming--during the start up boom in the 90's, they were grabbing people off the street and dragging them into start-ups--the whole process of getting a job that is both one that you can do, one that you can stand and one that is right for you can be pretty difficult. Add in any extras like a bad economy, a glut of people with your skill set and/or a hungry younger workforce willing to work for much less than you, and things get downright intimidating out there.
When you look for a gig, one of the final steps of the process used to be checking your references. This is where a potential employer called the people you listed to ask about your previous work experience, or their experience with you as a person. By this time they were basically hoping not to hear that you were a serial killer or had some kind of unnatural obsession with calendars, especially based on the fact that you provided them the list of people to call and talk to in order to tell them that you are good to go in terms of hiring.
These days, because the market is tighter (we have been in a pretty nasty recession and in theory we're on our way out of it, but still), employers are starting to sort of skip to that part first. Enter in places like LinkedIn, where referrals and recommendations are stored for anyone to see at any point in the process.
What this means is that, as a manager, you're going to start getting asked to provide referrals to employees, co-workers...even friends. Further, you may find you require their referrals as well. Some employers don't even want to move forward with a potential hire unless they can see some feedback about that hire that is positive or otherwise convinces them that the potential hire could be a good fit for their company.
Once upon a time, referrals and recommendations were more formal than just writing an email or posting on a website. You might write up a sheet of paper expounding the qualities of the person, sign it, and then they'd take it to whomever their new prospective employer might be. Those days are mostly over. People prefer a post on a website that anyone can see. Occasionally they want an email they can share with as many potential employers as they'd like. As a result, its getting easier to make recommendations and people are therefore more easily asking for recommendations. Even, perhaps, people that you might not want to recommend.
There's the rub. There are societal expectations that you will give a good recommendation even if the person is your apartment complex's gardener's third nephew twice removed. Meantime, potential employers are expecting that you will give fair assessments (if not a little biased towards the positive as these sites allow you to accept or reject recommendations and very few people proudly present the "he'd be great if he just wasn't so lazy" recommendation). Further, you may have future contact with these potential employers, either because they work with your firm or you may try to get work with them in the future.
I think the thing to do here is what you would have done if we had gone back in time and you were hand writing or typing a recommendation. Would you go to this trouble over this person? Do you now them well enough to say at least a paragraph of good things about them? Do you believe that there is a paragraph of good things about them in existence?
If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide a recommendation. Do your best to write at least three things about the person, no matter the format. And no damning with faint praise, either: "She'll be your absolute best employee because she gets extremely jealous when anyone else succeeds!" Commit to writing a good recommendation, and believing in and standing behind that recommendation or...don't write the recommendation at all.
You may have to face the complex gardener's third nephew twice removed and tell him that you're sorry, but you don't know him well enough to provide a recommendation and maybe he could try someone else, but you should do that rather than writing a recommendation for him; you could be asked about it later, and if you don't remember his name (let alone the recommendation your wrote) it reflects badly on you--not on him.
In this day and age the one thing you still have going for you is integrity. If you water that down providing recommendations for people you don't know, or worse, don't deserve it, then it can affect you as well as them later on. Ever recommendation you write is you saying to people reading that recommendation "this person is worth sticking my neck out for." So you really ought to make that statement true.
This also means that, when soliciting recommendations, you should not put people in a bad spot, yourself. Ask them to write about what they do know about you, and only if they're comfortable. Never, ever, leave it to the automatic request system on some website to request a recommendation or referral. Personalize the message, or, if you cannot, email them before the website does to let them know its coming and what you're hoping to get/expect.
When someone does write something for you, accept that it may not be the glowing awesomness you hoped for; a former boss might say you were diligent and timely and effective, but could use some help with your detail work because that is the truth for them (even if it might not be the truth for you). You have then got to make the decision about whether to make that review public (your original intention before you knew there might be something in the recommendation that makes it slightly less useful for getting work) or potentially hurting the feelings of/burning bridges with the person who wrote the recommendation.
In summary, while computers, email, etc., has made the process of referral and recommendation so easy that my nephews can do it, it doesn't necessarily mean that they should. It also doesn't mean that it should be treated trivially. What you write represents you. What people write about you represents actual human feelings and time they took out of their busy lives for you. Appreciate what you get, be gentle and deserving with what you give....and good luck on any future recommendations.