Buckle your seatbelts! We’re about to have a debate about something called keyword stuffing that could decide the fate of your next job application or the next candidate you are looking to hire.
Here it goes…
What’s Wrong With Keyword Stuffing.
It seems that every time I meet someone and tell them I work in employment, all they want to do is ask me whether keyword stuffing their resumes will really work.
What’s keyword stuffing? It’s the process of trying to discern what keywords a recruiter or other hiring gatekeeper might be looking for and then proceeding to stuff your resume full of them. A keyword can be any specific term that relates to a skill or area of knowledge like “Excel” or “HTML” or a business approach or philosophy like “agile”.
The idea is that the people doing the hiring get a flood of resumes and often use keyword-focussed software to bring the best matches to the front of the cue. If you don’t have the right keywords, you don’t even get a look in… or so the thinking goes.
This is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for the job seeker, and just like SEO, this kind of thinking has the same problem: it forgets the human context.
In fact, keyword stuffing is actually worse than pointless —by doing it, you are treating the human reader on the other end like an idiot. Let me assure you, when it really counts there is always a reader with a brain and significant experience on the other end of your resume.
That said, there are two sides to every argument and when I shared my opinion about keyword stuffing with my team, I found myself in a debate I wasn’t expecting…
Keyword Stuffing: Pros and Cons.
I’ll present both sides of the argument and let you be the judge.
Team: Keyword awareness isn’t pointless. First, the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are looking for them. Second, the everyday person doesn’t even know what keywords are and either puts them in inadvertently or isn’t aware of how to use them properly. Before you reject keyword stuffing, you need to educate people about them, because keywords often do play a part in the hiring process. For example, if an employer is looking for a Java developer and your resume doesn’t contain the keyword “Java” then you’re going to slip right through the cracks. You won’t even get a look in.
Me: Fine, so you need to be aware of keywords, but my point is that keywords are all about the skills you have and the things you do. If that isn’t in the resume, then you’re in trouble. Obsessing with keywords, especially if you start using extraneous keywords just because you think you should, will backfire. You may make it through an initial screen, but you’ll be sniffed out and rejected because the context won’t be there.
Team: But they have to open your resume first. You need to get through before you can be rejected, and deploying keywords strategically will increase your changes of doing that.
Me: Strategic is always right. But let’s bring it back to the final audience. If this is a high-volume hiring scenario, where the employer or recruiter is buried under two- to four-hundred resumes, then paying more attention to keywords will be critical, but if it’s an up-skilled, low-volume submission then it’s highly likely that your target is going to read your resume right off the bat and that’s one reason why I think it’s risky to obsess over keywords instead of the things that will ultimately decide your fate.
Team: Like what things?
Me: Like making sure that when they click on your resume it looks professional. If a resume comes up and it looks terrible, if it’s not formatted properly or doesn’t make logical sense, I don’t care how many keywords they’ve got right, I get rid of it immediately.
Team: Yeah, or when they just heap list after list of skills and you’re like “Thanks, I can cut and paste too.”
Why Context Matters More Than Keywords.
Me: I’m not disagreeing that keywords can matter, I’m just saying that you and me and almost any other experienced professional reviewing a resume has a well-developed bullshit detector and we’re hungry for context that assures us that this candidate is for real —they walk the talk.
By all means put the keyword in, but give me the context that makes me know you’re for real. For example, if you say you’re familiar with a “web logic platform”, I’ll only believe it if you give me something like this: “I worked for IBM on a large Optus project on its mobile network. We used web logic technology to….” Tell me where, why and how you used a “web logic platform” —that’s the convincer.
Team: And you can tell when they put a word in there that’s in fashion just because it’s a fad and they think people want to hear it. A few months ago it was [BLANK WORD]…
Me: Yeah, fads are a dead giveaway… but a faddish keyword works with the right context. After all, if it’s really part of your skillset and it’s relevant to the position then it should definitely be in the resume.
Build Your Resume With Trust.
Team: And then there are tons of people who take out their education because they think they’ll be age-discriminated against. Or they cut out gaps.
Me: I hate it when I see the education missing, because you immediately know they are trying to hide their age. This is as bad as keyword stuffing. Again, it’s context, isn’t it? And it’s about remembering you’ve got an audience of real human beings who aren’t going to be easily fooled. I know there are a lot of experts out there who say that over a certain age you should edit out dates that show how old you are, but I’d say the opposite —put this right up front and explain why being your age is exactly why they need to hire you. In the end, I want to see authenticity, not a carefully constructed fantasy of a resume that only makes me doubt or ask more questions. If you’re older, think seriously about jobs where you can add value and then fight for those roles. Be real.
Team: So it’s about trust?
Me: 100 per cent. Sure we’re looking for skills and talent, but what we’re really looking for is trustworthiness. Who wants to bring a wolf into their company? You don’t care what skills a wolf has —they’re a wolf, they’re going to do damage if they get inside. You want to know that a candidate is trustworthy, that they have loyalty. Skills and knowledge you can teach.
Team: But you don’t need a candidate to go back 15 years and put in every single job.
Me: That’s right. But you want them to explain any gaps and give you a picture you can believe.
Team: But you still need to have your resume read, so keyword stuffing isn’t totally stupid.
Me: Okay, not totally stupid, but without context, without building that trust, it won’t get you very far.