Applicant tracking systems see some keywords and phrases as more “valuable” than others. Many systems also allow the hiring manager or recruiter to “weight” criteria — applying greater significance to certain terms or qualifications. Hiring managers can also apply filters to further refine the candidate pool — for example, geographic or educational criteria. They can also specify keywords as either “desired” or “required,” which affects rankings.
In many cases, however, the system itself determines the most relevant keywords and phrases, as outlined in the job posting.
Companies that create applicant tracking systems continue to refine their processes and algorithms — and the systems are becoming less expensive as more providers enter the market. And jobseekers continue to learn to adapt their career communication documents (especially résumés and cover letters) to meet the needs of both humans and computers.
Newer ATS software doesn’t simply identify keywords and apply a score based on how many times that keyword appeared. (Older systems were subject to manipulation by jobseekers who would simply “keyword stuff” their documents, using white text or a tiny font to include the same keywords over and over again to trick the ATS into assigning a higher ranking to the document based simply on the number of times the keyword appeared.)
Context is the new part of this. It’s not enough to have the right keyword in the résumé — nor have it appear more than once (i.e., in a “keyword” section). Instead, the system looks for relevance of the keyword to your work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire résumé. Also considered in context is how recent the desired skill has been used, and the depth of knowledge the candidate possesses of the topic (by assessing whether relevant and related terms are also present in the résumé in relation to the keyword or phrase).