I am a huge fan of technical innovation. I read technical blogs daily, listen to weekly podcasts, and attend the many conferences that roll through the Bay Area. Through innovation, we have the ability to build efficiencies into our lives that allow us to be more knowledgeable about the world around us and be more productive than ever before. That all being said, some innovations in hiring practices need to go (or at least be avoided). There are many posts about beating the robots and the right keywords to use; I just say avoid them.
The combination of a down economy and a desire for companies to be efficient in finding and selecting candidates has led to the adoption of recruiting services and automated resume systems that pull "pertinent" information and put you into a faceless, searchable database. This is great if you feel you have a stellar resume that will stand above your competition. However, this is a detriment to your efforts if you are relying on that stylish yet subtle design that breathes life into your cover letter and resume, or those soft skills that make you a unique and dynamic addition to a team, or whatever else it is that sets you apart from your competition beyond keyworded work experience.
I'll go ahead and acknowledge that it may be difficult to completely avoid these systems in order to get your resume in front of as many eyes as possible, but I would suggest it as a last resort. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the targeted approach.
The Targeted Approach
Your effort is much better expended on a targeted approach rather than the "spray-and-pray" method. It may take a bit longer per submission, but I guarantee the time spent will be well worth it. Basically, the goal is to get a well designed cover letter and resume into the hands of real human being that has prior knowledge of you. Here are the steps I typically recommend:
1. Identify a position and/or company that you'd like to pursue
2. Search your network to see if you have any connections to that company. LinkedIn is great for this.
3. If you don't have a direct connection, ask for an introduction through a second or third level connection. If you don't have that, find a way to meet someone through a networking event. Meetup.com had been pretty useful in the past for getting in touch with various professional groups.
4. Recruit that eventual connection to be your evangelist and have them shepherd your PDF/hard copy to the necessary people.
5. Ask them if there is anyone specifically you should address the cover letter to. Prepare a full letter and resume specific for that pursuit (there will be several blog posts on this topic alone, but in short, do your homework).
Even if you don't run up against resume robots or automated systems, this will help you in your pursuit. Again, it may seem like more work up front, but it'll pay off in the end. Good luck out there!
The Spray-and-Pray Approach
A quick note about the Targeted Approach's fierce competitor, the "Spray-and-Pray." I recently saw a news segment focusing on joblessness in America. They highlighted this poor woman who said she had sent out over a thousand resumes/applications in the past two years. I'm sorry, if my math serves me correctly and she was putting any effort behind those submissions, this would be damn near impossible. Sure, people have gotten lucky by submitting a generic resume to many different companies, but this is like playing job roulette. Take the time, focus your pursuit, and let the company you're pursuing know that you give a damn.
Sidebar: There are some good companies out there that receive thousands of resumes and still take the time to review everything that is submitted. For instance, while Google has an online submission form, they also indicate that many of the fields are optional and there is a place to upload your resume. Each resume that comes in is reviewed by an actual Google employee. Guess what I recommend doing.