Keyword Stuffing in Your Resume: Just Don’t Do It

October 21st, 2021
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You know the old saying: “There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to putting keywords in your resume for SEO.

There is definitely a fine line between enough and too much. But how do you know where that line is? It can be defined by the term SEO itself. Search engine optimization. You want to use keywords strategically to optimize your resume. That’s different from keyword stuffing.

Let’s look at this issue a little deeper to give you a bigger picture of keyword stuffing, why it’s a bad idea, and how you can avoid it while at the same time using the power of keywords to get your resume noticed.

A primer in keywords

Keywords are an essential component of creating a great resume. Using them strategically throughout the copy is sure to help your resume rise to the top of the pile and impress the recruiter. However, many people take it too far. Keyword stuffing is a common pitfall for job hunters who often don’t even realize they’re making the mistake. Cramming your resume with too many keywords is risky and has cost many people job opportunities.

The first reason to use keywords strategically in your resume is to appease the applicant tracking systems. Many companies use an ATS to manage the application process. This software filters through applicants’ information to determine which candidates are best qualified for the position. The majority of this analysis is based on keywords the hiring manager has determined should be on the ideal candidate’s application.

Say you’re looking for a job as a project manager. Skills most recruiters are looking for on a resume include communication, leadership, time management, team management, and problem solving. Others, too. The ATS will filter out resumes that don’t contain those terms, and select those that do. An applicant who uses those keywords more than other candidates will usually rise to the top of the pile. Naturally, more is better, right? In this case, no.

Knowing they should use keywords, savvy applicants do their research and customize their resume with those keywords and important industry terms. With the idea that the more keywords included, the higher their resume will rank, they attempt to cram in as many as possible. But there comes a point in which it’s too much, and it will not only work against you, it’ll get your resume filtered out.

Keyword don'ts

Including the optimal number of keywords in your resume feels a bit like a balancing act. How much is enough? How much is too much? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules, like “Use the keyword four times on your resume for optimal results. Five will get you filtered out.” That would be nice to know. But, there are several dos and don’ts to help you use keywords optimally.

Don’t use white font

Hiding keywords in white font is an effort to beat the system. The idea is, you include your keyword, “team management” on your resume a few times in regular font, and hide it several more times in white font that is not visible to the human eye. The ATS will pick up those extra keywords and push your resume to the top of the pile, but your recruiter won’t see them, so it won’t look to like you’re keyword stuffing. Clever, right? Well, no. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re not going to outfox artificial intelligence or a recruiter.

White fonting is not only questionable from an ethical standpoint, it almost never works. Some applicant tracking systems can’t read white font. Others are so sophisticated that they pull resumes that have hidden text and eliminate those candidates. What’s more, hiring managers are well aware of this practice and often highlight resumes to reveal white fonts prior to calling candidates. This shifty practice is frowned upon and will most likely cause your resume to end up in the virtual trash bin.

Don’t overstuff your skill list

You likely have a list of your hard and soft skills at the top of your resume before you dive into your job experience and education, right? (If not, add it now.) It’s a great way for recruiters and hirers to get a snapshot view of the skills you’ve earned and learned, and with the new wave of skills-based hiring becoming the norm, this skills list is a must. But don’t be tempted to pad your list to unreasonable (and unbelievable) levels. If a recruiter sees that you’re skilled in every technology known to man, that’s a red flag. Too broad a list with skills that are out of context for the job looks suspicious.

Also, it’s vital to be honest about those skills. Don’t think you can fudge your way through and learn something on the job. Recruiters can spot that a mile away. But if you do get the job with the understanding that you can, for example, write code proficiently but in reality you’ve done it once, that’s going to spell trouble for you down the road. List only the skills you actually have, that you can put into practice on your first day on the job.

Don’t overuse keywords in one sentence

This is more about good grammar and readability than getting past the ATS. We’re not only talking about spelling everything correctly and using punctuation, although that’s a must. This is about stuffing your sentences with keywords. “Led several marketing programs that included targeted marketing to specific client segments, marketing content including blogs and ebooks, and social media marketing across several channels.” Too much repetition in one sentence.

You may get past the ATS with this, but what happens when it’s reviewed by a real person? A human recruiter will read your resume and immediately know that you’re keyword stuffing.

Recruiters know all the tricks, and when you have mere seconds to impress with a resume, poor grammar that forces the use of keywords will get you cut. Your best bet is to determine the most important keywords for a particular job and use them thoughtfully throughout your resume. That means incorporating them where they fit naturally.

Keyword dos

Now you know not to engage in keyword stuffing. So, how do you optimize your keywords to help your resume sail past the ATS filters and end up in the hands of a recruiter or hiring manager? Here are some tactics to help you do that.

Do make sure your keywords match the job description

This is a key element in the distinction between optimization and stuffing. You’re already tailoring your resume for each job you apply for, right? (If you’re not doing this, do it now.) Those efforts will fall flat if you’re not exact about it. For example, if the job description calls for a project manager, but in your last job that role was called account manager or project coordinator or another similar, but not exact, term, it’s doing you no good. Use the same language and terminology as the job description, no matter what your role was titled in your last job.

Do your research

Some keywords will remain the same for any application you submit. Research important industry and educational terms and include them organically throughout the copy. Another smart step is to pluck keywords from the job listing itself. It offers a treasure trove of clues for what is likely programmed into the ATS and on the recruiter’s must-have list. Use these in natural places throughout your resume to ensure you get noticed and score that big interview.

Do use action words

Keywords for hard skills carry the most weight with an ATS, but soft skills and action words matter, too. And when your resume gets into the hands of a human recruiter or hiring manager, they matter much more. A survey by CareerBuilder revealed the top action words hiring managers want to see on a resume:

  • Achieved
  • Improved
  • Trained
  • Mentored
  • Managed
  • Created
  • Resolved

That same survey revealed the words hiring managers don’t want to see:

  • Best of breed
  • Go-getter
  • Think outside the box
  • Synergy
  • Go-to person
  • Thought leadership

The bottom line: Do your research, align your keywords to exactly what it says on the job description, make your resume readable, be honest about your skills, and don’t go overboard. That will give your resume the best chance of getting through the ATS filter and into the hands of a recruiter or hiring manager.

Still have questions about applicant tracking systems and keywords? Contact us to learn more.

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