Live by the Keyword, Die by the Keyword

I recently read an article in USA Today that described the new cyber-warfare going on between the United States and other countries. The article went into great depth on the various countries that are producing not only defensive firewalls to prevent hostile intrusion into government databases, but also offensive weapons that would infiltrate the systems, data storage sites, and backup infrastructure of nations that threaten them. But as the author pointed out, the problem with offensive computer attacks is it’s hard to pinpoint one system or one specific database. It might be possible to shutdown the defense systems in one country, but that could also affect electricity, hospitals, and banks, which would impact the innocent and achieve scattered results. On the other hand, a physical strike in traditional warfare can take out a warehouse, but leave a nearby hospital standing. This sort of shotgun effect in cyberspace got me thinking about our own talent war, and specifically about the targeted use of keywords. Can we really build recruiting success based on keyword searching alone? In working with numerous recruiters in the past on several different technology platforms, I made one consistent observation: keyword searching was never done exactly the same way twice by two different people. Why? Because we humans are complex, subjective, and uniquely woven together in a tapestry shaped by individual experiences, philosophies, and learning dimensions. As ERE author Audra Slinkey notes in an article from last year, “It’s not where you search, but how you search that really matters. I could be searching the same database or source as someone else, but come up with completely different results.” Different Search Strings, Different Results Certainly in the past several years a lot of attention has been paid to improving Internet sourcing techniques and skills. There are many training organizations, as well as some great reference materials, that are available to help advance a recruiter’s skills in this area. But we still cannot ignore the subjective human end of the equation. In a given organization with 20 recruiters, there might be five recruiters who are keyword-searching gurus, knowing which complex strings to create in databases and what results to expect; 10 who are frequent searchers, but who stick to a few tried-and-true techniques without experimenting much; and five recruiters who are at the novice level. If we’re looking for consistency in the search process in an organization like this, we’re not likely to find it. Even when the gurus are given an identical search assignment, few will use the same search strings to find candidates. If your recruiting system, sourcing strategy, and resume/job matching methods are mainly driven by keyword searching, then your hiring managers will be limited by the skill level of the recruiter and the subjectivity inherent in keyword searching itself. Keyword search ability can affect not only your organization’s ability to locate good candidates, but also the time it takes for recruiters to find candidates. What’s the Alternative to Keywords? Here are a few recruiting technology alternatives to keyword dependency. These can help balance the subjective “recruiter variable” with factors such as consistency, field specificity and objectivity:

  1. Resume field searches. Systems and databases that place resume data, such as school or employer name, in a specific field will give users a better ability to target their search rather than just searching straight text on a resume. For example, a keyword such as “Harvard” placed in a typical keyword search on a resume could yield results showing “Harvard Business Review,” “Harvard University,” or perhaps even “Harvard Street.” With field searching, the keyword “Harvard” can be placed in a search field specifically linked to “college or university” and therefore target results for people who actually attended Harvard.
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  3. Profile-based systems. “Profiling” provides an alternative to keyword searching that goes beyond recruiter ability. Profiles, which are traditionally collected through a careers website or even some job boards, add a dimension of additional standardized data on which the recruiter can search. Profiles often contain “preference” information. Preference information can be an extremely powerful contribution to assessing potential fit and other qualities of a candidate, and can include data points such as:
    • desired salary range
    • desired location to work (not just where the person lives now)
    • desired job function to work in (not just what they are working in now)
    • desired amount of travel
    • desired work schedule
    • desired segment of the organization
    • desired relocation standing

    Since it’s rare you would find any of the preceding information on a resume, keyword searching on resumes would leave you high and dry if you were trying to make use of valuable screening information like this. And these are just a few of the items that can be objectively collected, categorized, and searched upon when using a system or database that contains a profiling function.

  4. Pre-screening questionnaires. When is a skill not a skill? When it’s buried somewhere in a resume and called something different than the keyword a recruiter happens to be using. But pre-screening questions or skills lists can help by itemizing the skills that are needed for a position. These lists, or “questionnaires,” can usually be added to your corporate website and become part of the pre-screening process. When job seekers fill in these questionnaires, as opposed to just leaving a resume, their direct answers reveal if they have a particular skill or certain experience level?? or even if they fit a basic screening parameter, like having the ability to travel 75% of the time. With this “hard” data in your hands, a recruiter can instantly sort top candidates and save a great deal of time in the pre-screening process. Job seekers also benefit from an objective process, in which they are being asked the same questions and getting the same opportunity to present their answers.

Keywords can probably never be eliminated from the recruiting process, but we should understand the subjectivity and limitations of complete keyword dependency. Keeping your keyword searching skills sharp for resumes and search engines is great, but making better use of complementary technologies can enable you to obtain more rounded and objective information on candidates, and hopefully provide your hiring managers with better candidates faster.

Gretchen Sturm ( is Knowledge Manager of Services with Recruitsoft, the leading provider of Internet-based recruiting solutions for major corporations. She manages the implementation, eLearning and product knowledge transfer for Recruitsoft's consulting services and global client base. Her career has focused on integrating technology into the full hiring cycle and establishing effective Internet recruiting strategies. Previously, Sturm managed the recruitment technology and online recruiting areas of the Unisys worldwide recruiting team and oversaw recruiting technology and sourcing for CIGNA Corporation's US-based operations.