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I often get questions about how to “optimize” resumes for search engines so that they will be “easier to find.” Most of the people who ask the question are already somewhat aware of a process called “Search Engine Optimization” and understand that it is related to things called “keywords.” While this is not exactly wrong, I would like to dispel a few misconceptions:
Search engines are not all alike: Google would not find a resume the same way TheLadders would, so “optimizing” your Web site is very different from doing that to your resume.
Keywords are just, well, words. There is nothing “special” about any particular word — it becomes special only by how often it occurs and the company it keeps.
This article will explain how to make your resume more “findable” on sites like TheLadders and why that process is very different from the “SEO” we hear so much about in marketing publications.
It is true that TheLadders is a search engine just as Google is, but the two products look at documents very differently. No search engine is able to break a document down into segments without a “map” — just the way you wouldn’t know that you were driving from New York to New Jersey unless you had some sort of clue — road signs, landmarks and the like. Similarly, Google knows that news articles and such have titles because documents intended for display on the World Wide Web can carry special “tags” that instruct a Web browser on what the primary topic of that page is and how it is to be displayed in a browser. Your resume does not have the tags, and hence lacks the “map” that a search engine needs. So Google would probably see your resume as just one big blob of words. That’s good enough for many kinds of documents, but not for resumes … for reasons that I will get to. So, what does TheLadders do to read your resume? TheLadders has what we call a “parser” that knows how to find things without a map and when it finds them it provides these “tags” and creates a new, search engine-friendly version of your resume.
What does all this mean? It means that a resume is more than a blob of words — it is different from a news article or blog or e-commerce site. It has several “parts” — not just a title and text body. For example, a resume lists jobs and each job has two parts — a title and a description. Most resumes also have an executive summary section providing an overview of skills. The point is that each of those sections carries a different message. Therefore not all words are created equal for the search engine — the words in the titles say something different than the words in other parts of the document. Accordingly, this means something to search engines like TheLadders, but not to Google. Words in different parts will be considered differently. In particular, your “keywords” receive greater or lesser weight depending on where they are.
Many people who actually understand the principle of SEO make a common mistake of not understanding the difference between how general search engines work and how specialized search engines work. The widely held belief is that if you sprinkle common words throughout the resume at least two at a time, everyone will find you — you increase your chances! I call this the “Jack-of-All-Trades” strategy and, surprising as it may seem, it will produce the opposite of the intended effect — nobody will find you. A Jack of All Trades is a very common type of job seeker. This individual has switched industries or radically changed the types of positions held throughout her career. This is not necessarily a career flaw but it is a resume flaw. The resumes that are found most often are those that contain the most searched-for keywords in the right places. That’s right — think about what recruiters are looking for in a particular position and then think about searches. If a recruiter is looking for a marketing executive, he is likely to search for a position-level word, such as “VP” followed by a position word like “marketing.” The resumes returned toward the top results for such a search are those of seasoned marketing executives who have “marketing” in recent and previous job titles. Other resumes may have the same number of such words but if they are not in the title, they will not end up on top of the results pages. The only thing “key” about “keywords” is what they say about your document relative to everyone else’s — and frequency alone in this case is not enough to make you stand out.
It’s an old-fashioned concept that actually wins the high-tech resume SEO game — show career progression. Pick a particular niche and stick with it! This idea seems counterintuitive — especially to the Jack-of-All-Trades — but it works.
This does not mean it is wrong to switch industries or try different jobs. Many people choose to have different resumes to account for different experience in special areas. If you are a marketing executive but you want to cover all bases and try for that job as an accountant, put together a separate resume documenting all your accounting experience … the Jack-of-All-Resumes is the better choice!