SEO Doesn’t Matter for Talent Acquisition

TLDR: SEO doesn’t drive applicants in a significant way, even for Fortune 500 companies who have invested in SEO, because it’s impossible to beat job boards for the vast majority of queries.

Last week I was day dreaming and, as sometimes happens, I started to think about talent acquisition (don’t judge me). I was thinking about the key to any “successful” job board. It’s really all about cheaply attracting job seekers, and then re-selling that traffic to employers. Monster’s mechanism was brand/being first, Indeed’s advantage was the ability to rank for high intent search terms on Google, Glassdoor’s is reviews/salary info, etc.

Ok, so Indeed is a multi billion dollar enterprise value company that specializes in SEO and capturing high intent job seeker traffic. So, how does an individual company compete with them on SEO (and all the other job boards, who also focus on SEO)? Do they? If not, does SEO even matter in talent acquisition or is this just another buzzword that people like to mention at conferences and “strategize” about?

SEO in talent acquisition is simply a buzzword

The best way to answer questions like this is with a story, and then by using data to see if your story is right or not. The story I started believing was the NO, SEO doesn’t matter. Because of the way Google’s search engine works (the best UX, content and link juice win), and the way that candidates research jobs (queries like “sales jobs in boston”), there is no way that most TA organizations can rank for any relevant search queries and capture traffic that converts into applicants. The job boards have too many advantages. More on that later.

Ok, so now I had to get some data to figure out if my story was right and that all the webinars/ebook/etc on SEO for TA were just BS.

Branded vs Non-Branded

It’s worth noting here that when I talk about SEO in this post, I’m talking about non branded terms. A branded search would be “Samsung 50 inch plasma TV” vs “50 inch plasma TV.”

If someone puts your company name into the query, I’m assuming you’re going to rank. In order to rank, all you need is a website that’s been around for a bit, has links pointing to it (from your old press releases, social, etc), has a decent UX (mobile optimized, intuitive), and the content people are looking for.

For example, if someone searches “sales jobs IBM Boston,” you’d hope that IBM ranks first (they do). What they sadly don’t do is have a microsite dedicated to sales, nor Boston, that ranks. And so, their conversion rate of visitor to applicant will no doubt be lower than if they did (conversion rate will be higher if someone goes directly to a page on Boston sales jobs, then to the general careers site where they are 5 clicks away from finding the right job). But, that’s another problem entirely.

In fact, the reality that IBM ranks for this query even though they don’t have microsites that relate to neither Boston nor sales jobs proves my point here. You don’t have to do much to rank for your branded queries!

Now, the unbranded stuff is where the opportunity is for incremental benefit. Imagine if IBM was ranking for “sales jobs boston” (they aren’t). Imagine if they ranked for lots of queries like “sales job {city}.” That’d be pretty sweet wouldn’t it? #FreeApplicants

However, Indeed, Monster, Glassdoor, and the rest of the job boards out there should win for these queries. Here’s why: they focus on SEO (link building, markup, rich snippets, meta tags, etc). They will also win because they have a “better experience” than IBM could ever have. If someone is searching for “sales job {city}” they just want a listing of jobs. IBM will only give you IBM jobs. But, as a Google user, I want to see lots of jobs for lots of companies. And, Google users get what they want (Google wants you to come back so they can build a more robust data profile on you, and hope you click on some ads – so their entire algorithm is based on you getting what you want).

Here’s the point: IBM can’t rank for these queries even with all the page authority they have, but they rank for their branded keywords despite what appears to be a lackluster effort to do so.

If this is true, then talent acquisition and employer branding teams should spend almost no time concentrating on SEO. They can’t win the non-branded terms, and they will win the branded terms no matter what.

The Data

I got the Google Analytics (GA) data for three Fortune 500 companies to understand the value they were driving through SEO. What’s really cool is I could see traffic from queries, and also the applies related to a given query. So, we could track visitors as well as applicants.

Fortune 500 companies have a large advantage in SEO because they have lots of links to their site from years of press releases, news about the company, etc. The internet is a voting machine, a link is a vote, if someone votes for you, Google ranks your content higher. Fortune 500 companies get lots of votes and so everything on their site ranks high, including the careers pages.

So, the numbers here would be much better than what a smaller company could hope for.

What I found was a SHOCKINGLY low amount of applicants from non-branded SEO.

Here we simply have total career site visits, and total applicants (yes, these are BIG companies):

Next, let’s throw in SEO.

Wow, SEO is driving tens of thousands of applicants! That’s crazy. Case closed, let’s invest in more search engine optimization, right?

Hold on, the vast majority of this traffic is branded. People typing in “IBM sales Boston” – those people are going to find your site whether you invest in SEO or not. Let’s see what our non-branded traffic brings us.

SEO for Talent acquisition

What do we see here?

Company 1 has 112k applicants in a year, but only 684 are from non-branded SEO. 684 is nothing to scoff at, but for a massive company this is nothing. Most of these applicants are typing in something like “engineering jobs in Indiana” and finding the job posting on the 4th page of Google results. There are no non-branded queries driving more than 5 applicants. This is important, if you had an SEO strategy, you’d want to build pages that are targeting specific queries. Are you going to invest in a microsite that will only drive 5 applicants per year? Didn’t think so.

Company 2 seems to be doing really well! In fact, I thought these numbers were a mistake for a moment. However, over 30% of the non-branded SEO applicants come from international queries (“Lagos infrastructure engineer”) where it would make sense there is a chance to beat the local job boards – there simply isn’t a lot of competition in Nigeria. In fact, if we had the location of the queries we are counting here, my guess is that the vast majority originated from international (defined by outside the US) IP addresses, and thus even though the query is “local engineering jobs” it might as well be “engineering jobs in Lagos” since that is what Google is going to serve as results. However, with our current data set there is no way of knowing this for sure and so it remains simply a hypothesis.

Company 3 shows the same anemic results as Company 1, with 83 applicants in a YEAR from non-branded SEO. Yikes.

Well, What if These Companies Invested In SEO?

The obvious consideration here is that these companies haven’t invested in SEO and therefore they could reap massive benefits from spending the time and resources to beat Indeed, right?

Wrong. These companies HAVE all invested in SEO, extensively (I know this from the data’s source). So, in addition to having the benefit of the page rank of a Fortune 500 company, their results are even more positively biased by the fact that they have higher than normal traffic/applicants from work done to build out microsites that are designed for search!

So, the companies that have massive page ranks, and have invested in SEO, are still not showing results.

I don’t care, I want to Learn about SEO and Sound Smart Using Buzzwords
It’s worth noting that the time on site, bounce rate, and pages viewed was best for organic search traffic vs direct/referral/social/etc traffic. This means that people who do come from search are engaging with these sites a lot more.

Anyone still looking for a SEO overview should go here. It’s a 45 min overview of most things you should know about SEO, even if you aren’t going to pursue this as a strategy.

So, What should I Focus On?

The number one under utilized talent acquisition strategy we see is to focus on conversion. Modest increases in the rate of visitors becoming applicants lead to massive benefits.

For every 1% increase in conversion, Company 1 would see 9k more applicants! And, there is a strong case to be made the quality of applicant would increase as most increases in conversion are made through better employer branding content, Candidates who are CONVINCED to apply through content are higher quality.

Increases in conversion can also be achieved by upgrading to a modern ATS, or utilizing a recruitment marketing solution that skins the ATS and the apply flow.


My hope is that you can now rest a little easier. You have something checked off your to-do list. SEO is no longer a priority (I say this as a founder of a company that would help build your ability to rank in search engines). As long as there is a reasonable effort made on your careers site, you will rank for branded terms. However, fighting for long tail/high intent queries against the job boards for applicants is no longer a priority and you can go on to bigger and better things.

If you completely disagree with me, have a data set I should be looking at to further explore this topic, or want to chat employer branding, please shoot me a note, I’d love to hear from you.

Notes on Calculations

The numbers are pulled directly from Google Analytics. There are two caveats. First off, a lot of traffic doesn’t have the original keyword listed due to Google’s inability to track users with different privacy settings activated in their browser. Therefore, we inflated the number of applicants/views from non-branded SEO by a factor equivalent to 1/((Total SEO Traffic-Non tracked SEO Traffic)/Total SEO Traffic). Second, we increased/decreased the nominal numbers of visits/applies by a few percentage points just so we weren’t publishing the exact numbers from a major corporation’s Google Analytics. It’s worth noting that the overall conversion and common sized (SEO applies as a % of total applies, for example) numbers are exactly the same.

This post was originally published on the NextWave Hire Blog where we write about tips and trends related to employer branding and talent acquisition.

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