Why Keywords Are the Hidden Secret to Improving Your Job Prospects Online

Unspoken rules determine who gets seen

Most major businesses now use automated filtering systems to sort through resumés. - Credit by Animation/Illustration: Yuliya Kim
Headshot of Patrick Kulp

You’ve got a polished resume, ample qualifications and a personal pitch you’re sure will win over any recruiter or human resources department. But before you can do that, you’ll probably have to persuade a robot.

Faced with a never-ending deluge of job applications, most major businesses now use automated filtering systems to shuffle resumes with certain keywords to the top of the pile. And with a growing number of recruiters tapping online networks like LinkedIn for fresh prospects, job seekers find their chances more bound to the whims of various search algorithms than ever before.


Applicant tracking systems (ATS) software emerged in the late 1990s after the dot-com boom made online job applications popular for the first time.

The earliest systems were simple databases for storing and organizing candidate information, but over time they developed keyword-filtering and other automated sorting features. Integrations with LinkedIn and other networking sites now allow them to trawl the web for prospects who don’t know they’re being evaluated. One survey found that 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies now use some form of ATS.

The criteria these systems prioritize don’t necessarily correspond with a candidate’s actual ability, but understanding them is nevertheless critical to getting one’s foot in the door, according to Mary Jo King, president of the National Resume Writers’ Association.

“Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of candidates who go, ‘I don’t get it, Mary Jo, I used to be able to get every interview I asked for, and I always got the job. Now I can’t even get people to talk to me. What’s wrong with me?'” King said. “Some days, I want to stand on a street corner with a bullhorn and tell people, ‘It’s not you, it’s ATS.'”

The upshot is that one ingredient now matters above all others in the modern online job hunt: keywords. While a few ATS programs have become smart enough to understand context and natural language, most are simply programmed to hone in on specific terms. Optimizing for search engines, which use much more complex formulas, takes a bit more finesse but the process still largely hinges on the words that recruiters are likely to be searching for.

“It almost doesn’t matter what technology they’re using, the vast majority of employers today are having resumes come to them through some kind of a screening system that will rank them based on keywords,” said Matt Youngquist, a job search coach at Career Horizons.


The best place to find these keywords is often in the job listing itself or on the company’s website, Youngquist said. Beyond that, job seekers should read trade journals, the LinkedIn pages of current employees and conference descriptions to get a sense of contemporary industry jargon.

Stay away from generic soft skills—”self-starter,” “team player”—and focus on concrete competencies specific to the desired field—”video production” or “copywriting”—Youngquist advised.

“If you’re a journalist, say, adding ‘excellent written and oral communications’ seems silly because they assume you can write,” Youngquist said. “It would be more things like ‘editing,’ ‘storyboarding and ideation,’ ‘style guides.’ In almost any professional field, there’s a level of jargon that tells the reader the person gets this field or they don’t.”

On the flip side, don’t assume that your skills are being taken for granted; job seekers will often neglect to list certain qualifications because they seem like obvious prerequisites for a given position. For instance, a salesperson might not think to include terms like “deal-closing,” “prospecting” and “negotiation” because they seem like a natural part of the job, Youngquist said.

There are also nuances when it comes to where you place keywords on the document. ATS might use algorithms that decide certain terms are more relevant when they appear closer to another particular word or assume that skills that appear in certain parts of the file have been practiced more recently.


@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.
Publish date: August 7, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/why-keywords-are-the-hidden-secret-to-improving-your-job-prospects-online/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT