TIPS & MYTHS

ATS, AI, SEO, AND KEYWORDS

Hype & Multiple Confusions

MAIN POINTS:

All of these terms and concepts get mixed up into meaningless and misleading fog by résumé writers and résumé “experts” slopping out wordage full of recycled nonsense for their sales talk, social media postings, website articles, TV and radio appearances, seminars, podcasts, and other publications/publicity. This is because a lot of it has been copied and recopied and chopped up and taken out of context continuously for over twenty years by people who didn’t understand what they were talking about. (If you have nothing better to do, click here for a bit more about the history.)

Things will be much clearer if you think of keywords as a topic all to itself, essentially independent of technology, though the different technologies do have minor implications for the way you use keywords in résumés. Keywords were important long before any of the technologies came on the scene.

ATS and AI refer to technologies used by employers to search résumé for keywords. SEO is the practice of making sure keywords in a document function effectively for the document provider’s objectives when the document is searched for keywords—most typically when a document on the Internet is searched by search engines such as Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc.

Keywords, in résumés, are common terms for job titles, skills, key technology, sub-specialties, types of experience, key industry players, and other factors. A large and growing number of employers and recruiters use applicant-tracking systems (ATS) that process digital résumés and search them for keywords that are used as indicators of an applicant’s suitability for a given job. The documents are scored on the basis of the keyword count. Resumes that don’t meet a minimum score will probably be rejected. Recruiters will look through the rest, and decisions about who gets called in for an interview may be made partly on the basis of those scores, though some recruiters ignore them.

Obviously, keywords are extremely important. But they’re still vastly overhyped and misunderstood, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about what words function as keywords.

 

 

The Details:

 

AI vs. ATS vs. SEO

AI/ATS/SEO vs. Keywords

Keywords vs. Buzzwords

Real Keywords vs. “Magic-List” Keywords

SEO For ATS vs. SEO for Web Searches vs. SEO For LinkedIn

Optimization For ATS vs. Optimization For Reading By Humans

 

 

AI vs. ATS vs. SEO

The latest fashionable term is, of course, “AI”—not referring to AI in general, which would be correct and straightforward, but as a term used to designate a specific function of résumé-processing systems, a function that was for long performed without the benefit of true AI.

The people who use “AI” this way don’t seem to know the difference between computerized analysis of text—which has been used for long time—and AI, a revolutionary computerized technology that has burst into public awareness in 2023.

They also don’t seem to know the difference between AI in general, a technology with innumerable uses, and the specific function that is of concern to résumé users—a function that can be performed with or without AI.

In other words, “AI”, when used in talk about résumés, is just an empty buzzword (not a keyword; more about this later).

True AI, if and when used to analyze résumés submitted for a job opening, will doubtless add capabilities—in the direction of analytical subtlety—beyond the present capabilities of computerized résumé processing. But those added capabilities will be in the direction of making the system function more like a human reader. Which means that the résumé-writing techniques that are successful with AI-based résumé-processing systems will be more like those already successful with human readers.

(One such capability might be the ability to detect résumés written using AI—which will probably then be automatically rejected by the AI system.)

“ATS” (“applicant tracking system”) is being shouldered aside by “AI” as the hot buzzword for people talking vaguely about keywords and computerized résumé-processing systems. ATSs may be standalone systems, or they may be parts of larger enterprise-management systems. ATS systems may or may not employ AI. Presumably, very soon if not already, they all will.

ATS systems search résumés for keywords that are supposed to indicate an applicant’s suitability. Decisions about who gets interviewed are then made on the basis of keyword scores.

“ATS” is thus a good term for the technology that has to be taken into account by résumé writers and résumé users.

But ATSs are not the only reason that keywords are important. Keywords are important for Web searches, LinkedIn searches, and, above all, for human readers. A good résumé writer will take all of these “audiences” into account when incorporating keywords into a résumé.

And keywords are not the only thing that is important for ATS optimization. The technical formatting of résumé documents must be compatible the very limited capacities of ATS processing systems. (I’ve been making a point of this technical compatibility since Crystal Résumés started in 2008.) To sum it up, ATS systems can only handle input from MS Word résumés and plain-text (ASCII) résumé. Anything else—including PDFs and Google Docs—will be rejected, or fail to process meaningfully. And the same will happen with many MS Word résumés that use common formatting techniques that are incompatible with ATSs.

Perhaps most importantly, ATS is not the only stage in the hiring process, though many résumé services and résumé “experts” seem to think it is. (See our discussion of the dangerous half-truth that “Your Résumé Has 15 Seconds To Make The Cut”). ATSs, if used properly, just do the first screening, in which the most obviously unsuitable candidates are weeded out, so that humans don’t have to waste their time on those résumés.

Once the résumés get through the ATS weeding-out, the humans at the next stages don’t necessarily pay any attention to rankings or other feedback they get from the ATS system. Your résumé has to get through ATS, and it’s surprising how many résumés don’t, purely because of the technical compatibility issues mentioned above . But the résumé still has to perform much more difficult and complicated functions at later stages of the hiring process. (Once again, see the “15 Seconds” myth.)

Before ATS, the hot buzzword was SEO (“search-engine optimization”), because search engines are known to be used to search on the Web for résumés, and also for LinkedIn profiles. “SEO” is not the same thing as “ATS”. “Search engines” are independent, and independently-owned, systems like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yandex. They have their own purposes, and their own complex search algorithms. ATSs are owned and programmed individually by companies and organizations, to handle job applications.

The term SEO primarily covers all that is involved optimizing a website so that it can be found, by means of search engines (Google, etc.) by people searching for that site’s content. As I know from my involvement in the SEO for the Crystal Résumés site, the similarities between SEO and the optimizing of résumés for ATS processing are so basic and general that they are hardly meaningful for any practical purpose. They involve searching text for keywords, but that’s all. There's a lot more to SEO and ATS optimization than that.

Someone who knows SEO won’t know how to optimize a résumé for ATS processing. And good luck to a practitioner of résumé “SEO” who gets into website SEO.

(Even earlier, in the days of paper résumés, the buzzword for the same thing was “scannable résumé,” because employers were feeding paper résumés into systems where they were optically scanned so that the text could then be searched for keywords, by a computer.

There was a lot of hype and misconception about it then too. It’s only worth mentioning because a lot of that hype was has been continuously recycled since then by people writing about later technologies with later buzzwords, and is now being used with the “AI” buzzword.

This is how all the talk about résumé-processing technology and keywords has gotten to be such a garbled mess. If you really don’t have anything better to do (such as looking idly out the window), you can read about it here, in an article I wrote back in 2008, when résumé writers and résumé “experts” were still talking about scannable résumés, even though the technology had been dead for at least several years.

AI/ATS/SEO vs. KEYWORDS

“ATS” is the accurate term for the automated systems used by employers to process résumés at the initial stage of the hiring process. As discussed above, there is more to ATS than keywords.

“AI”, when used to refer to these systems, or to any aspect of résumé process, is just a misleadingly vague buzzword. AI may be used in these systems, but “AI” means a lot more than that.

“SEO” refers to the practice of, among other things, ensuring the presence and effective placement of terms that the writer wants search engines (such as Google or Bing) to find. SEO is similar to, but not quite the same as, the management of keywords to be found by ATS systems or human readers. It’s not far-fetched to use “SEO” for all of these things, but the differences shouldn’t be forgotten. All of them have to be taken into account in order to write an effective résumé.

Keywords are common terms for job titles, skills, key technology, sub-specialties, types of experience, key industry players, and other factors. They are what ATS systems and search engines search for. But keywords involve much more than just technology. Blurring keywords together with the technology used to find them distracts from factual and linguistic considerations that are essential to using keywords. It also distracts from the question of what does and what does not function as a keyword. Quite a few people are confused about this.

THERE IS, OF COURSE, MUCH MORE TO ATS OPTIMIZATION THAN KEYWORDS. A crucial part of ATS optimization for résumés is compatibility with the technical requirements (or limitations) of the ATS systems. I discuss this elsewhere, when talking about the various document formats used for résumés, but it comes down to this: ATS systems don’t process anything well except Word files and plain-text files, and they have problems with some common visual formatting techniques used in Word résumés. (For more detail, see Technical Issues With Word Résumés, below.)

However, Word résumés are what the humans in HR need to see, and what you need to send with your job application. So the way the Word résumés are formatted is critical for ATS Optimization.

(Don’t send more than one format to the HR people. It will only confuse them, and they may not use the right format for the right purpose. You can send a PDF of your résumé to people outside HR once you’ve gotten to that stage, and in some industries you should. When manually pasting your résumé into online forms, you should use the plain-text version of the résumé that I’ll send, and you should always manually populate the forms if you have that option, even though it’s a fair amount of trouble. It gets the best results with ATS processing.)

It would require a considerable investment to make ATS systems that could handle more types of files. The companies that make those systems are under no pressure to make that investment. This is partly because the ATS systems are just relatively small parts of more comprehensive business management systems.

(If the use of the words “format” and “formatting” seems confusing here, that’s because it is. See the article on this.)

KEYWORDS vs. BUZZWORDS

Buzzwords are part of the common buzz, words that people toss out without thinking in casual conversation. The most prominent ones are the ones that come and go with the various types of popular fashions and hot topics. They are inaccurate or misleading, based on common misunderstandings of things that are too new for most people to have learned about clearly and in detail. (If they weren’t inaccurate or misleading, they wouldn’t be singled out as buzzwords.)

Keywords, in the context of résumés, are words employers are actually looking to find in résumés, in order to select promising candidates to fill jobs. By definition, they are not words that everybody is using. If they occurred in all résumés, they would be useless to the employer for the purpose of distinguishing one candidate for another. Likewise, they cannot be inaccurate or misleading or vague. If they were, they would be useless to the employer for evaluating candidates. The employer will prefer candidates who use terms with precise meanings that cannot be interpreted in multiple ways.

Among the most common buzzwords that people mistake for keywords are the terms for “soft skills.” Soft skills are desirable skills, but skills whose definitions are so unclear that most people think they have them even if they don’t, and everybody thinks they can get away with claiming on their résumés. So they’re useless for sorting out job applicants.

There are other types of buzzwords as well, but what they generally have in common is that they’re current fashions, which come and go, some over months or a year or two, some over decades. People use them to give the impression that they’re right up to date on whatever it is that they’re talking about. The only impression they actually give to a reasonably intelligent reader or hearer is that they’re careless speakers, and probably careless thinkers.

Humans who read a lot of résumé are sick of seeing the same buzzwords in almost all of them. An applicant who can convey his or her qualifications without the meaningless buzzwords will be such a relief to the reader that they will stand out from others for this alone. And that applicant’s presentation will be much more credible because it is not vague.

Everyone, of course, falls into using them occasionally, but careful speakers and thinkers fall into this only when they are talking about, or more rarely, writing about, things that are less important to them, or that they don’t pretend to know much about. With your résumé, you want the reader to think that you know what you’re talking about, and that it’s important to you. With résumés, keywords are essential, but buzzwords are a fault.

REAL KEYWORDS vs. “MAGIC-LIST” KEYWORDS

Many résumé services, and counselors, coaches, and writers on job-hunting, seem to think that “keywords” refers to some magical, unchanging list of words that will get you considered for a particular job. The résumé services seem to imply that they know those lists and you don’t. The others seem to imply that you can find out the words that are on the list for the jobs you want, or perhaps they think that it’s the same list for all jobs.

As with many common misconceptions, about job-hunting and about many other things, if it were that simple, everybody would be doing it and it would no longer be effective. This is a common feature of all sorts of magical beliefs. If all résumé services had the magic lists, or if all job-seekers could find and use the lists themselves, the words on those lists would eventually appear on most résumés, and employers could no longer use them to distinguish between candidates.

In reality, there is no basic list of keywords that an ATS might target for all jobs or for a given job. And there is no limit to the number of possible keywords that might catch the eye of a human reader, especially one who is hiring for higher-level jobs. There is no predicting any but the most obvious possibilities.

Valuable keywords may be so specific to the job and the employer that few outside the specialty would anticipate them. In some cases, they might perhaps be so specific to the employer’s plans (such as the name of a potential candidate company for merger or acquisition) that no one outside the employer company could anticipate them.

Or, on the other hand, the keywords programmed into the ATS for a given job by a given employer may be whatever words the HR people put on the lists for that job. In the latter case, IT people will recognize a GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) situation. There’s no telling what’s on that list, or how well it will correspond to the actual key qualifications as recognized by people qualified to fill the job.

A common mistake about keywords, made by many résumé “experts”, is the belief that the many fluff words—buzzwords—commonly seen in job descriptions and job postings can function as keywords.

In fact, many employers deliberately write job postings without the keywords they are looking for. This is to prevent people from copying keywords from the postings. This is one reason (among others) why job postings often look so fluffy and unreal. Résumé writers and job-seekers who use this fluff in resumés, in the belief that these are keywords, are not well informed, and not trying very hard to write a résumé that will help their clients get a job.

As Damon Runyon once wrote, “The race is not always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, but that’s how you bet.” Your best bet is to include as many industry-related terms and names as possible for real-world key qualifications (that you actually possess). This increases the odds of scoring well at the ATS stage. Given the often unrealistic programming of ATSs, it’s about the only thing you can do to increase those odds.

Real keywords are also important for human reading. They’re important when, as is often the case, the person is making a quick scan of the résumé to decide if it’s worth a closer look. But that’s not the only time when they’ll be important.

A résumé with plenty of real-world keywords also increases the odds that something will ring a bell in a hiring manager’s mind, for some very specific reason that you couldn’t have anticipated. (For example, at the early stage of a company’s plans to expand into a certain market, or explore a certain technology, or explore working with a certain vendor.) Because keywords aren’t there just to get you past the initial screening. Like everything else about your résumé, keywords can and should work at every stage of the hiring process. They are the keywords that will make impacts on the minds of every person who reads the résumé. And these will often be different keywords for different people on the hiring team.

Real keywords should be a part of every résumé in every format, no matter how the résumé might be processed. Here’s my hype: Providing the best selection of real keywords requires an in-depth, fact-based approach to information-gathering and writing, individualized for each job-seeker. I write your résumé to include the richest possible range of keywords, based on the information you give me in interviews, on my experience with clients in similar fields, on some rather broad general knowledge, and on some individualized research on possibilities suggested by your information.

SEO FOR ATS vs. SEO FOR WEB SEARCHES vs. SEO FOR LINKEDIN

There are some technical differences between LinkedIn searches, ATS searches, and the searches carried out by Web search engines such as Google. For résumé purposes, the differences are not great, and can be easily accommodated by a résumé writer who knows about them. In the résumé business, some people make a big deal out of them. Others don’t seem to be aware of them at all, and use “SEO” or similar terms as little more than buzzwords.

(And as for LinkedIn, keywords, and search optimization, never forget that a LinkedIn profile is not the same thing as a résumé. A résumé is a selling document to be presented to prospective employers. A LinkedIn profile is a public document. For executive, management, and tech people, there may be things you can put on a résumé that you wouldn’t be wise to put on a public document.)

OPTIMIZATION FOR ATS vs. OPTIMIZATION FOR READING BY HUMANS

When you think about optimizing your résumé for searches, never forget that résumés are also read by humans, and that part of the mental process of reading involves… guess what: searching. Every aspect of the visual formatting and information structure of a résumé has the purpose of optimizing that résumé for reading by humans.

 

FOR HISTORY BUFFS ONLY:

If you sometimes get the impression, from résumé-service websites, that ATS and keywords are sort of the same thing, it’s because some of the sales copy used with the “ATS” buzzword is recycled from copy formerly used in hype for the buzzwords “keywords” and “SEO”.

The people recycling it probably don’t know that it was previously recycled from copy used twenty years ago and more, when paper résumés were the norm and the buzzword was “scannable résumés,” referring to a second version of your résumé that you sent in on paper to be fed into optical scanning machines. (That second version was unformatted, so it could be scanned more accurately. In fact, it was the paper version of a plain-text résumé.)

Since the scannable résumé technology was the first technology to come into the picture, it seemed reasonable enough at the time to equate the keywords with the technology used to process them. At least, it seemed reasonable enough to the cheap and mediocre résumé writers of the time, who didn’t know that keywords had always been important for résumé writing—and for any sort of writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.”

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

(This is the principle behind modern experimental scientific method, which Bacon is widely credited with having formulated, and which he certainly formulated in more detail, and to greater effect, than anyone else.)

 

“Master your subject. Then the words will come.”

— Cato the Elder, 234149 B.C., “the virtual founder of Latin prose literature,” written to his son.

 

 

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