LinkedIn Search Optimization: Picking The Right Skills

Since LinkedIn is currently the primary search engine used by recruiters to identify talent, there are substantial benefits from having your profile rank highly for the right searches. Search optimization is a winner take most game: the highest ranking profiles on a page earn most of the attention. We’ve been watching the evolution of the skills and endorsements feature since our first article a few years ago. As predicted, they have collected a large set of data about who knows what and how well they know it. This information appears to be playing an increasing role in matching talent to opportunities.

The average LinkedIn user appears to be taking this feature at face value: summarize your profile into a handful of skills, see what happens. Based on a little exploration, we think most people can do better.

Why LinkedIn Skills and Endorsements Matter

The primary paying customer for LinkedIn is recruiters, their “Talent Solutions” business. This has represented over two thirds of their revenue over the past couple of years. They’ve also been trying to expand an adjacent offering focused on sales and marketing, but recruiting remains the key product.

The typical recruiter wants to know two things:

  • Which candidates have the skills I’m looking for?
  • How credible are these candidates? Can they deliver or are they posturing?

Skills and endorsements are clearly being used for the latter purpose (verifying candidate quality), although they also help the search process as well by getting a candidate to catalog their expertise.

In addition to the raw count of endorsements, an easy target for spammers, LinkedIn has added two trust indicators. First, they identify how many of your recommendations come from “highly skilled” practitioners of the skills in question. Judging from a review of their profiles, most of these “highly skilled” endorsers are senior professionals with a high number of trustworthy clicks themselves. They have also started identifying how many people at a specific employer endorsed you for the skill.

This appears to be fairly effective as an anti-spam device. A determined candidate could probably have picked up thirty endorsements in an afternoon by passing their profile around the outsourcing center. Acquiring specific endorsements from “trusted” experts and a decent sized body of co-workers is harder. The result, for your featured skills, looks something like this….

So basically 5 trusted people are vouching the candidate knows their stuff and at least seven people from a single employer stepped forward and clicked on the button.

Incidentally, they’ve enhanced their data collection practices. The current endorsement screen asked you to identify how well the person knows the skill and describe your relationship with the person. These can easily be used to further filter candidate quality behind the scene.

The quality rating can be aggregated across candidates into either an average score or percentage above a certain mark. The relationship status claims likely feed into the spam detection algorithms – particularly since you could easily compare them with overlapping job history, career level, and functional expertise. We know LinkedIn already has algorithms for parsing career level and function from the existing profile data.

Watch for them to develop more advanced offerings in this space during the next few years. The data they’re collecting is similar to Google’s “knowledge graph” except for professional resumes. They can glean many additional insights from how users interact with the platform: what gets clicked, who browsed it, heat map activity on profile reading, and deeper engagement such as clipping a lead or repeat visits. This will evolve into a very powerful search engine over time as they keep investing in the analytics.

LinkedIn Search Optimization: Winner Take Most

While this is interesting, let’s talk about how we craft this into a strategy to get more profile views.

First and most importantly, like any other search engine optimization challenge, ranking in LinkedIn search is a “winner take most” game. The higher you rank for searches from a particular recruiter, the more likely you will be selected. My estimate is you probably need to be on the first several pages of a typical search for a given keyword or job description to have a chance at being considered.

The good news is you can pick your battle. The key word in that last paragraph was “keyword”. That dictates the universe of people you are trying to outrank. For ideal chances of success, you’re probably going to need to get on the first page of results: that means ranking in the top 10 profiles for a search.

Unfortunately, most people tend to pick the wrong battles. Most people select their profile skills like they write their resume, a massive anthology of everything they’ve ever done. Written as generically as possibly. Take big broad terms like marketing, analytics, social media, copy-writing. Combine that with some guidance to be “well rounded” and you get generic profiles where everyone knows everything.

Which may work when you’re already in the building… but you aren’t. You’re sitting outside on the curb, hoping someone notices you as they drive by. It’s a simple enough challenge: how many people will you have to rank ahead of for recruiter searches for your target job term?

To make this real, we picked a major US city, generally considered to be a third tier employment market, and ran some counts on common digital marketing keywords.

  • “marketing” – 135,000 potential results – with existing connections ranking first. Uh, good luck…
  • “digital marketing” – 25,000 results. Slight improvement, but the top candidates are super strong.
  • “seo” – 3,000 results. Getting better; the top of the page has very strong candidates but you might be able to muscle your way into the bottom of the first page with a well optimized profile
  • “seo copywriter” – 27 results, most of which aren’t seriously trying. This is very winnable.

New York or LA would be far harder…

LinkedIn gives you a gift as well. Look at the bottom of the page.

More job titles that the same recruiters were looking for. Take a look at how those searches look.

So if you want to attract recruiters to your profile, pick “narrow” sets of job opportunities that you are well qualified for. Instead of “marketing manager”, where you are competing with a cast of thousands, narrow your search down to a specific aspect of marketing. Narrowing the scope to “marketing analytics manager” eliminates 99% of your potential competitors. Then – optimize for that.

LinkedIn Search Optimization: Featured Skills Strategy

This is a good place to think about your strategy for building up your featured skills. LinkedIn allows you to highlight three specific skills on your profile and bury another 47 “below the fold”. The three top skills will generally get most of your endorsements (especially the good ones) over time, so proper selection is important. These three skills should be related to the “narrow” opportunities you decide the pursue.

In practice, this means not making “Marketing” a featured skill. It’s far too broad and non-descriptive. Go down a level or two within your discipline until the competition thins out a bit. It is easier to stand out in a smaller crowd. However, you want to balance this with three factors:

  • Your ability to get endorsements from “highly skilled” profiles in that area
  • Likelihood of recruiters searching for specialists with that skill (ideally part of a job title)
  • The skill is sufficiently applicable that other employers will still give you consideration.

You’ve got three featured slots to work with. In addition to being more visible when you profile is read, your featured skills will likely attract far more endorsements over time. Since getting a high number of endorsements on a skills appears to elevate your rank in search for that keyword, you want to allocate these featured skills to match the search terms for your preferred jobs.

For the first two featured skills, go one or two levels down within your field and look for job categories that represented at the director or VP level in a typical large company. For example, a Fortune 500 marketing department probably has a mid-level executives in charge of pricing, brand management, and direct marketing. These fit the sweet spot above: decent recruiter activity (in the job titles), good supply of highly skilled endorsers, and not sufficiently narrow that you’re excluded from other roles.

For the third, narrow it a little bit further. If you normally talk about pricing (VP / Director role), go down another level or two as long as you’re confident: a) people put that skill in a job title you want and b) enough people around you know that skills you can land a few “highly skilled” endorsements. The game is to become one of the strongest candidates in town in that search. For example, narrowing your focus from “marketing” to “pricing” eliminates  92% of the potential competition.  Narrowing it from “pricing” to “pricing optimization” eliminates another 90%. You’re now 1 in a hundred.

Incidentally, you can also try to do this with non-featured skills.  LinkedIn search seems to focus on the number and quality of endorsements granted a skill rather than if that skill is featured. So having a couple of narrow “specialty” skills in your “below-the-line” skill collection could still work.

It’s far easier to win the game when 99% of the competition doesn’t show up to play….

Impact on Job Matching

There is a balancing act here, however, because skills and endorsements also feed into job postings.

One of the advantages of several LinkedIn Premium plans is they share competitive intelligence on what hiring managers are looking for in a particular position. You can see a snapshot like the one below.

As you can see, a hiring manager identifies a list of skills and the system compares it with your current profile. Unlike the search algorithm, which really seems to respect “mastery” and depth of expertise, merely possessing the skill on your list seems to be sufficient to get points in this process.

This is worth getting at least a temporary subscription to “Premium” so you can understand which skills employers are tagging for the positions you’re interested in. You don’t need to use featured skills for this: you’ve got 47 “below the line” skill slots you can use to check off as many of these boxes as you can…

Pulling It All Together

So you want to organize your skills at three levels.

First, select two of your three featured skills to support the top couple of searches you want to rank for. These should be semi-specialized, enough to narrow the field you’re competing against but not enough to lock you into specific jobs. Maybe 1 – 2 layers more specialized than the C-level executive for your area. Be sure to check the number of potential candidates for that skill in your local job market.

Next, go look at the skills listed in the job search “competitive intelligence” profiles for your typical target positions. Make sure you have those listed as part of your other skills. This helps you when applying via LinkedIn jobs.

Finally, look for opportunities to use a handful of slots to target very narrow searches. Limit this to one featured skill slot (that you can get endorsed) and a couple of below-the-fold slots if you wish. This is your best chance to rank at the top of the page for a particular area of expertise.

Overly scientific? Perhaps. But the upside here is that once you set this up, which you can do in a weekend, it will continue to generate relevant attention from recruiters and hiring managers for the next several years of your career.

And that could open all kinds of doors….

Ready to get started? For a list of skills to look at, check out LinkedIn’s skills directory. They also give you competitive intelligence on who has the skills, which companies hire candidates with these skills, and what other related skills the typical candidate has….

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