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Michael Woodrow is the founder and president of Aspen Technology Labs, a recruitment technology and data services company with offices in Paris, Colorado, and Kiev. With global giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google now in the jobs space, industry players must work out how to learn from them and keep up, argued Woodrow. How companies deal with issues like micro-targeting, non-jobs content, tech overload and big data will be crucial.

Woodrow will be speaking at the RecPlus Conference in Barcelona.

In your opinion, what are the major challenges facing the recruitment (classified) industry in the next three years?

One thing I always say is I’m still shocked at how difficult it is for a candidate to apply for a job on a mobile device. Five years ago everybody was talking about it; now nobody except me is talking about it! It’s crazy. So that’s a big challenge: we need to make it easier for people to apply. Indeed and others are doing these “quick applies” but I don’t know that it’s really designed to make the candidate experience better. It’s designed to control candidates and to be able to serve them more ads after the candidate applies, because they’re keeping them in their system.

Some people are, in my opinion, pretending to help with this, but I think they’re really serving their own interests. I don’t think anybody has done a great job of figuring out how to improve candidate experience. And that really segues into the next challenge for companies: how do you quickly and easily build a talent community? How do you keep in touch with that talent community in ways other than just hammering them with job alerts?

Those are two big challenges in the industry. And I think the third challenge is the rest of us, who aren’t Indeed or some of the big guys – and even to a certain extent ZipRecruiter, although I know some of the guys at ZipRecruiter and I think they have a really cool business, and LinkedIn too – everyone is trying to own these candidates. So it’s up to the rest of us to figure out how we compete with people who have these massive, massive databases of people. With big data and understanding people better, those guys are going to be better and better at serving them with jobs, and Google API and everything, they are trying to serve more relevant ads to people. So the biggest guys have scale or have technology, and the challenge for us is how we keep up with these guys!

What will most surprise conference attendees in your presentation at RecPlus?

Most people don’t know that Amazon is in the jobs space. Some people have maybe have heard about it, but Amazon are sticking their toe in the water too. Amazon is a force with their AWS (Amazon Web Services) business. They have a huge, massive reach. If they want to dial things up a bit they can. Facebook certainly has the power to take a big piece of the market. Some of the challenges they have are on discrimination – they have been accused of discrimination by sending job ads only to certain people. It’s almost like they are so good at what they do and the micro-targeting that now they’re in trouble for it! 

Facebook’s ability to micro-target is something I think we should all be striving for, and what Google is trying to do with Google for Jobs. When I was at the Job Gate conference in London, people were saying, “I’m in London and I’m a recruitment technology person – why are they serving me an ad for a massage therapist position?” So they’re not perfect but they’re going to figure it out and keep getting better at serving relevant ads to people.

Another thing that will surprise people is this whole Internet of Things and mobile devices, and what I was just talking about, serving relevant ads. My commute to work – I have it in Google Maps, they already know it. As they do that and they know more and more about me, they’ll be able to serve me with more relevant ads. There’s a place you could work halfway to your office. Or, I know you commute 15 minutes to your office. All that micro-targeting I think has to be the standard that is going to happen in the next few years.

Another thing that I think that will surprise people is, some of the people like the StepStone guys are talking about job advertising platforms. They want to do more for people. They want to try and serve them content that is relevant to them. They want to figure out when they are likely to be looking for a new job. They are trying to make their platform more than just jobs. I think that’s really interesting. Trying to launch a job board like Great Green Energy Jobs in the US, and just having jobs on there – those days are over. Because you’re just not going to be able to compete with the big guys on just a jobs perspective. You need to be able to provide content, and provide people with more than just jobs – I don’t know what those things are. Someone’s going to have to crack that. That’s another trend that is coming to the industry.

Indeed doesn’t seem to have much content but they’re just so big, and ZipRecruiter has just such a massive database of people to send jobs to. Someone asked me – how does that apply to ZipRecruiter? I don’t think it does, because they’re so big. But the rest of us, who aren’t that big, we’ve got to figure out some way to be something interesting to people so they either read your jobs alerts or come to your site.

What unique challenges does your business face in your market?

A challenge we face on our career site platform is a really cool, slick, simple platform. Will companies layer another piece of technology on top of something they already have? They’ve got an ATS, they’ve got a career center, maybe they’re using Broadbean for job distribution or eQuest or somebody, and so they’re like, “We already have two or three pieces of our technology going – do we really want to insert something else on top?” So basically tech overload – that’s a big challenge in our space.

It’s an advantage for us in our jobs data management business, because we help them. We make it easier for people. We help them with their jobs data management; we help them distribute their jobs. But from a product standpoint, one of the challenges they face, like us, is do companies want to have another piece of tech they have to deal with? We’ve seen research that shows that’s a challenge.

Where has the major recent disruption in your sector come from?

The biggest piece of disruption that I see is Google for Jobs. I believe that Google wants to make the search experience as easy and valuable as possible for its users. That’s my premise. Everything they do is because they want to make the search experience better for users. Of course they have the luxury of making a gajillion dollars on ads!

What happened before was when you did a search on Google, you got organic search results. I’m not sure why – I think it’s because Indeed did such a good job of aggregating. Ten years ago Google couldn’t index corporate career sites that fast. They were still indexing more and more sites across the world and they couldn’t get to the corporate career sites every hour or two or something like that. Indeed could. Indeed was smart, they said, hey, we’re going to something better than Google, we’re going to go after all these corporate career sites, and we’re going to do it more often than Google does it. Maybe Google was doing it every day or two, but Indeed was doing it more often. So Google figured out that best place for them to get jobs was Indeed. So seven of the top 10 search results were Indeed results. Indeed just became a powerhouse in industry.

And they did some other crazy things too. Indeed gave free traffic to job boards, and then they stole their customers. I don’t think they make any bones about it – they gave free traffic to job boards, job boards got fat and lazy and took all this traffic from Indeed, and they didn’t know this but Indeed was calling their customers behind their back. I have a lot of respect for them – they’re a great business – but I really don’t like those guys at all. So Google used to give seven of the top 10 results to Indeed – the entire first page was Indeed results. And then for some reason they stopped doing that and they built this thing called Google for Jobs.

Now if you type in engineering jobs Chicago, you get this cool screen that comes up, and it’s Google search results. Indeed and Google are in a big pissing match – they’re not playing nice together. None of those search results are Indeed. The cool thing about it is that if you get sent a job alert from ZipRecruiter, say, you may or may not be looking for a job. But you get a job alert, and you think, this is an interesting job, I’m going to apply for it. But if you go to Google, and you’re looking for a job – you’re really looking for a job. You’re serious about it. So if Google can serve you relevant jobs, there’s a good chance that you’ll apply for those. You’re already an active jobseeker because you went to Google to do a search.

One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that people generally don’t go to the home page of job boards and search for jobs. Usually they get served an ad or see an ad somewhere and they get pushed to that job page. So Google is different and what we’re seeing is really high apply rates and we’re even hearing that the hire rates are higher. So the major disruption is that Google’s not showing Indeed jobs any more up there at the top of the search results, but corporate jobs. Where Indeed is keeping the candidate in the Indeed platform, Google is sending the candidate right back to the corporate site so they can apply directly there.

I see lots of things like Chatbot, but I don’t see those as major disruptions. If someone can figure out this mobile apply thing, that will be a major disruption, but I don’t think anybody has figured that out.

How is digitalization further going to reshape your business?

I think we’re beyond digitalization. Digitalization is what our business is: newspapers went away and job boards came, so that was digitalization. I would answer the question a little differently: what is big data doing to the industry? It’s the next stage after digitalization. You’ve got two things happening with that. One is the ability to really target candidates, because you have so much data available on them and computers that can process that data, and handle it and store it.

The second thing is someone will figure how to do a better job of matching candidate resumes to job openings. No offense to the guys in the industry, like Textkernel, but I don’t think anybody has figured it out yet. I’ve been a recruiter for 25 years. I don’t see that there’s any electronic way to do a great job of matching candidates with job openings. LinkedIn will probably have the best chance of doing that. They’re already offering some new services where they look at a job opening, and then they look in their billion-person database and try and serve you up people that they think would be most relevant for that position. So I think big data and matching candidates with openings is the Holy Grail right now.