What SEO Writing and Writing Your Resume for ATS Have in Common (It’s Not What You Think)

Feb 19, 2021 | Resumes

Is Writing for ATS and SEO Similar

The way an Applicant Tracking System works is often compared to the way a search engine works. In this article, we explore how you can use this knowledge to improve your resume writing. 

By: Grace Mitchell | Blog Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma

That’s right: we’re talking robots again. In case you’ve been out of the hiring loop for a few years, the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is now a common feature of the hiring process for most companies.

Since search engines, like Google, are more familiar to the average job searcher than Applicant Tracking Systems, some job service sites compare the way an ATS works to the way a search engine functions. But does the comparison also hold true for how you should write content for the two systems? Let’s take a look.

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Robot Takeover?

First, we need to get a few things straight about how the ATS works.

Applicant Tracking Systems have received a lot of criticism in recent years, with many sites claiming that “75% of applicants are rejected before a human sees their resume.” A quick search of these sites yields countless tips to help “beat the bots.” However, it turns out the 75% claim is unfounded; it originated with a now-defunct company that sold services designed to “help get applicants through Applicant Tracking Systems.” The company never clarified where their statistics came from, and no recruiters have backed up the claim, yet the 75% claim is perpetuated by many job service sites and even major media outlets.

Applicant Tracking Systems may seem scary, but at the end of the day they’re just filters to help organize information. Do you ever use the “find” (Ctrl + F) function when browsing a long document? Hiring managers and recruiters often have hundreds of applicants to sort through, and using an Applicant Tracking System allows them to sort those applicants in a similar way. If, for example, a hiring manager wants to hire a mechanical engineer, they can filter for only those candidates whose resumes use the term “mechanical engineer.” That way, the hiring manager is focusing the bulk of their time on candidates who are at least minimally qualified, and they have a greater chance of hiring the right candidate for the job.

man looking at computer Photo by Abu Naser Ramim on Unsplash

While many larger companies use an ATS to filter and rank resumes, there’s still a human being that’s using it. Photo by Abu Naser Ramim on Unsplash

However, Applicant Tracking Systems don’t have nearly as much power as we think they do (like the ability to auto-reject your resume) because a human recruiter is the one pulling the reins. It is important to make sure you use ATS-compliant formatting and keywords from the job description to make your resume easier for the recruiter to find in their ATS when they’re searching through applications, but that’s not the end goal of your resume.

 Comparing ATS to SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of making your website accessible to search engines in order to facilitate more web traffic. Search engines use bots to scour the web, sorting sites so that the most relevant results show up as search results, so site creators focus a lot on the process of making their sites easy for these bots to navigate.

Several articles compare writing for the ATS to SEO because both of these practices require using the appropriate keywords so that your resume or website is easier to find. Additionally, both the ATS and the bots that parse for search engines can get stumped by irregular formatting, so be sure to mind your stylistic choices.

However, the most crucial similarity in writing for ATS and SEO is that no matter how well you write for a robot audience, your work still needs to be readable for a human audience.

Picture this: You build a website about bird-watching that checks all the SEO boxes and comes up on the first page of results for “bird-watching.” Way to go! But when a human bird-watching enthusiast accesses your site, they find it reads like a robot wrote it!

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So you like birding? Maybe you’re going birding or bird watching in your favorite birdwatching spot tomorrow.

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Your text is so loaded with keywords about bird-watching that it isn’t comprehensible. Since the reader doesn’t really understand the information presented, they go looking for other sites.

Bird on branch. Photo by Kelly Dalling on Unsplash

Beware of stuffing your resume with keywords to the point where it doesn’t make sense to the reader. Photo by Kelly Dalling on Unsplash

Your resume can work the same way. Your goal shouldn’t be just to “get past the Applicant Tracking System” and into the hands of a recruiter or hiring manager. You want that hiring manager to read your resume and select you to interview! There’s no mysterious quantity of each keyword that will ensure that your resume will get seen by a human — choosing which resumes to view is still ultimately in the recruiter’s control.

Clunky, repetitive bullet points loaded with keywords may cause your resume to rank higher in ATS search results, but they’re unlikely to impress the recruiter. For example, a candidate may use the bullet:

  • Led a software engineering team using software development back end tools such as Java, JavaScript, and Python to create innovative web application for e-commerce platform

When a hiring manager sees the above bullet point, they will likely think it’s repetitive and unnecessarily stuffed with keywords. Even though it would mean using fewer keywords, a bullet like this would be better:

  • Led a six-member team that used Java, JavaScript, and Python to optimize a client’s e-commerce platform, enabling a payroll cost savings of $350,000/year

The latter bullet point is much easier for a human to read, and it’s also much more impressive, despite the lower number of keywords. Remember, you have the whole resume to add keywords; you can likely find a good place for them in the summary or another bullet.

The Bottom Line

No matter what you’re writing, write it for a human audience! Yes, bots play a large role both in the hiring process and search engine functioning, but they will never be the final set of eyes to see what you wrote. Including important keywords and using manageable formatting is always necessary, but overdoing it on keywords hurts your chances of getting the job.

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