The SEO of You: Know Your Keywords!

At one of my networking events not too long ago, a recruiter advised the audience of job seekers in attendance that the most important element of resume preparation was to ensure all the right keywords were contained somewhere in the document so that the resume would come up in a relevant database or applicant tracking system search.

One of the audience members then raised their hand, in innocent fashion, and asked “So how do I know which keywords to include in my materials?”  The recruiter’s response was bracing: “Why would you need me to tell you this?  Aren’t you an expert in your field?  Don’t you know the terminology being used in your own profession?

This little exchange sums up a curious aspect of job hunting that continues to be challenging for many professionals out there.  The notion of keywords and the constant fear that you might have overlooked one, or more, that could be important to your success.  Without question, saturating your materials with relevant terminology is a critical ingredient in finding work today, given that we live in an information-rich world today where recruiters, employers, and job seekers alike all rely heavily on technology to find one another. Demonstrating fluency in the right keywords and jargon also goes a long way toward underscoring your credibility.  If an employer sees you comfortably throwing around the latest-and-greatest language in your field, it suggests (rightly or wrongly) that you’re plugged in and pretty up to date in what you do — and haven’t let your skills lapse.

In fact, I often find competency keywords to be MORE reliable than job titles today in turning up relevant opportunities for people.  Let’s say I’m working with somebody who is skilled in the area of business intelligence.  While companies might slap all kinds of crazy labels such as “Systems Analyst” or “Business Analyst 3” or “Data Architect – Warts & Bunions Group” on a given position, at the end of the day, they all share a common denominator.  Search on the simple phrase “business intelligence” and each one of these jobs pops right up, awaiting further investigation.

So in consideration of the above recruiter’s point, here are some sources that you can potentially use to ensure you haven’t missed a single acronym, buzzword, or snippet of jargon that might help you improve your career prospects:

•  Go on LinkedIn, search for people in professions similar to your own, and study the language they’ve used throughout their profile; if they come up high in the search rankings, that usually means they did a really good job of saturating their profile with the right language and there may numerous terms you can, ahem, borrow from them

•  Do the same thing in the free resume database you’ll find on; review a dozen or two resumes of similar folks in your field and see if they contain any useful language you might have overlooked; you might even go down to the free “trends” tool at the bottom of Indeed to see which keywords are gaining steam faster than others

•  Scan a sampling of published advertisements in your field to see what employers are asking for in terms of requirements and qualifications; right or wrong, they get to call the shots about the skill sets they feel are important to them, so make sure you match your resume closely to the exact vocabulary employers/recruiters use in their ad solicitations

•  Engage in a regular reading regimen of books, blogs, and trade publications related to your field or profession, keeping your eyes peeled for new language or emerging terminology that might be making its way onto the scene

•  Lastly, premium LinkedIn users can now take advantage of a new feature you can read about here where the system will examine your profile and suggest certain terms it thinks you might have missed in putting your materials together (free users, don’t fret; you can accomplish the same result by using the four tips I’ve already highlighted, above!)

At the end of the day, keywords are such an easy thing to overlook, but it’s a piece of cake to pin them down if you just do a little research.  You never know when you might have overlooked a term that could have significant consequences to your success rate.  For example, I know one professional who was actively searching for jobs involving merger and acquisition planning, but didn’t recognize the phrase “corporate development” when I mentioned it, even though I told him that this is essentially the term every company (other than their current one, apparently) uses to describe folks who focus on M&A activity.  I also had a client from Microsoft confess never having heard the term “DevOps” even though that term describes her job goals to a tee.  So again, pay attention, and don’t take anything for granted.  Do a little homework!

As for the latest and greatest buzzwords being born?  Well there’s sure a lot of talk these days about sales readiness, sales enablement, and data science.  I’ve also had several people use the phrase “sales motion” in my offices lately, which is one I haven’t heard before.  Always interesting to see which of these terms will catch on, going forward…

P.S. Love words, in general, like I do? You might check out a site called that evangelizes the power of individual word choices in far greater detail than I’ve done here — to a degree that’s either extremely silly or utterly brilliant!

5 Responses to “The SEO of You: Know Your Keywords!”

  1. Matt and all,
    There is no question they are here, and will stay in one form or another.
    The points of my comment were really HR oriented:
    1. Keep the ATS scan current and relevant my knowing the real job and the ATS matching it.
    2. In doing so make certain what is not “passing through” is not discriminating against a group.
    3. Not doing so means un- or under-qualified people make it to the hiring authority and the disconnect or “black hole” is evident.
    4. Get constant feedback on how the recruiting – by position – is going/doing.

    Believe it or not, there are plenty of examples of execs, currently employed within a company, testing their own ATS and finding out they aren’t qualified for their own job (don’t pass through the system) and would never get interviewed!!!!

    Because many companies are very poor at this, for those non-HR people out there (the majority), use every means at your disposal to bypass the ATS and normal recruitment process with referrals, LinkedIn inmail, friends, networking, social media, etc….and I am an HR person. If you are applying blind to a job board or even a company site, take the TIME to read the description and make certain your resume uses the same terminology, key words and phrases….It’s tough work!!! One Size Does Not Fit All!

    Finally, whether unemployed or looking for a different job or company, if you’re having difficulty with this process, especially when changing careers, use experts like Matt to help you re-orient your job hunting processes and keep you headed in the right direction with the greatest chance of success.

  2. John: Love your passion around this stuff — and wow, I won’t attempt to respond in equal volume — but if you’re suggesting that keywords aren’t an important part of the modern job hunting process, I’m afraid I respectfully disagree. Now whether they SHOULD be or not is another matter entirely, and perhaps the landscape will change one day based on some of the legislation you cited, but as of right now there can be zero debate about the role that databases, technology, and social media sites play in the hiring process. If somebody is looking to get hired today, they can’t afford to overlook the importance of including the right mix of language on their materials. Keyword-searching is an integral part of the process, just as most folks today search Amazon to find just the right gift to buy or tap into Google to find the name of a good plumber in their local area. Savvy professionals need to pay attention to the language their “customers” are using today, as well as their industry at large, and be conversant in this terminology if they wish to maximize their career prospects. So while sure, there are unquestionably situations where ATS systems and the like are used in inappropriate or unethical ways, that doesn’t negate the fact that such systems are the way of the world these days. They’re not going away anytime soon and researching keywords therefore remains an important element of the overall success equation.

  3. This hit one of my hot buttons….Such a comment seems infantile and woefully inaccurate because the applicant doesn’t set the description parameters and/or key words the ATS scans for, it is HR, Recruiting/Talent Acquisition Department or recruitment firm (RPO)/recruiter.

    Recent highlights from the EEOC are not for the naïve or willful discriminator. 2012 “EEOC Hiring Issues report notes that the EEOC recently held a series of meetings to examine the impact of certain hiring practices on protected groups….. Recent commission-initiated litigation also indicates this issue will remain among the forefront of the EEOC’s systemic litigation agenda,” …

    To comply with certain federal applicant tracking requirements (ie. OFCCP) many companies determined the most cost effective process was an ATS (Applicant Tracking System). Today even the small employers can access one. An ATS also contains the ability to scan resumes for key words and phrases, the employment application and self- identification of sex, race, veteran status, handicap, etc. The ATS is usually the first candidate-company interaction ….but…. the most impersonal, unforgiving and possibly the most prejudicial format ever utilized.

    An ATS may help comply with legal requirements; however, the ATS has also eliminated the human cognitive ability to compare, reason and interpret a resume’s contents. ATS have a number of very serious flaws leading to potentially illegal recruiting presumptives. Boomers used to call it GIGO – garbage in garbage out.

    A job description may be used to set up the key words and phrases the ATS program uses to scan resumes, however, most large ATS have these words built in and are not maintianed automatically. Unless the correct key words and phrases fields are populated (entered), and scrupulously monitored and maintained, the resume scanning results will be biased and inaccurate resulting in un- or under-qualified applicants!

    Companies and industry cultures develop their own unique sets of internal descriptive words, acronyms and phrases. If a job description or your ATS uses key words like: analyst instead of engineer; create instead of design; HR instead of People or Talent (or vice versa); international vs. global; die not dye or… any list of functions without cross over synonymous key words or phrases, most qualified people will NEVER pass through and be selected for interviews. Furthermore, most company ATS stop looking (scanning) when a predetermined number (e.g. 20) of “qualified” resumes are attained – “garbage in (definition) and the garbage out (un- or under- qualified candidates)”.

    This impersonal GIGO effect is also a big part of the “Black Hole” I and everyone, including employers, talk about. However, there may be a more serious problem. How you manage your ATS may be blatantly illegal!

    If the job board, career site, social network or sourcing methodology disproportionately excludes qualified candidates, experience and/or entire classes of candidates, protected or not, discrimination is at work. Unless bonifide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) exist for these errors your company’s ATS excludes and discriminates.

    Regardless of your AAP (Plan) or AAS (statement) if your ATS is excluding, unintentionally or on purpose, you are excluding and discriminating. This affects the company’s brand reputation and company profitability! But, Wait…There’s More! This is potentially a BIG expensive legal problem!

    Each ATS user is responsible for their system’s parameters, definitions, descriptions and results! The same questions and statements can be said of outside recruiter’s and recruitment firm’s (RPOs) methodology. Just because these tools are used and their use expanding does not mean they are being used legally. Just because there have been no suits, judgments or precedents (yet) doesn’t mean these tools are not biased and discriminatory. What liability does the ATS software supplier or RPO carry?

    Software lacks the ability to compare, reason and interpret what isn’t stated or implied. Do you know if what your company is doing is legal??? Is your lack of oversight jeopardizing your firm, company or client?

    We are seeing rumblings (candidates) and investigations EEOC/DOL following 8-10 years of legal non-enforcement. Determining the bias, exclusion and discrimination effect of technology is only a matter of time. Both federal departments and private employment law practices are just now starting to look because of the perceived discrimination against mature (protected) and unemployed workers (I believe soon to be protected or incentivized for hire).

    This was covered briefly in the recently completed blog series, “Your Corporate Strategy. It Just Doesn’t Matter?”

  4. Andrea: Thanks for chiming in, as always, and I just wanted to say for the record I totally agree with all of the points you raised above. While I still believe keywords are an enormously important part of the job-finding process, you’re right, they’re certainly no magic bullet or substitute for all the many other aspects of promoting yourself effectively, including networking and other activities. I also agree (and hope nobody was confused about this) that ridiculous and random keyword-packing into resumes — and the use of tired old tricks like the infamous “white font” maneuver — are not techniques I’m advocating here. If you’re a competent and experienced professional, there’s no need to get cute or sneaky with your keywords. Just put them right up front in the appropriate places on your resume, LinkedIn, and other documents. That will do the trick just fine. My point, however, is that you need to make sure you KNOW what the top ones actually are in your field today and not take for granted that the reader will automatically assume you have them, based on your work history alone. That’s where I see people going astray. I see sales professionals who have negotiated complex deals for many years who don’t think to put “negotiation skills” anywhere on their resume or profile. Much less to include words like prospecting, lead generation, cross-selling, or a dozen other important terms that could help them get found via a resume database or LinkedIn search. But you’re right, there’s no need to go to ridiculous extremes…

  5. I understand and appreciate the keyword advice, but I hate to see job searchers focus on keywords to the exclusion of other things. I spoke with one candidate last week that had received the advice to include a huge amount of keywords in his resume in the header, and then format them in white font, so the automated systems would pick them up, but real people reading them wouldn’t see all the words. However, my ATS stripped the words from the header and placed them into the document, so they were all jumbled together with his resume – turning a perfectly good resume into an unreadable piece of junk.

    Job seekers have to use keywords and these are excellent pieces of advice to use the right ones. I still don’t think they are magic bullets that overcome connections, networking, and real conversations with real people about what you can do for them.

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