For business owners plagued by a dearth of candidates for key job openings, the Web was supposed to provide an ideal solution. Job-search sites like Monster.com can put postings in front of millions of applicants instantly. And newer business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn provide similarly fertile recruiting territory, supplying access to the contacts of thousands of people. On the other hand, anyone who's actually tried to hire someone through the Web knows the truth: You post an ad and are immediately flooded with hundreds of resumés, many from people whose backgrounds are wildly inappropriate. So much for the Web making things easier. It's enough to make you long for the days of print newspaper ads and snail mail.

But just as technology created the problem, newer technology aims to solve it. A new generation of hiring tools promises to screen out inappropriate applicants, allow the suitable ones to put their best foot forward, and even hunt down good candidates who haven't applied. As these new services get better at these tasks, they may well change the balance of power in the job-recruiting industry and could even redefine the way we think about jobs.

A shot at diverting a river of weak applicants is the chief advantage offered to employers by Protuo, a Woodstock, Georgia-based start-up that launched its service in January. Protuo isn't only a job-listing site; it also forwards its clients' listings to some 270 established job-listing sites, including Monster. But applicants can't respond to a Protuo posting unless they spend seven minutes or so filling out a survey that asks about experience, skills, workstyles, and job preferences. Employers can customize the survey by choosing from a wide field of prepared questions or by adding their own, and they specify which responses get a candidate's resumé past the screen. Has the candidate managed a technical project? Is he or she willing to move? The approach is modeled, to some extent, on the sort of compatibility gauging one encounters on a matchmaking site like eHarmony, notes Jennifer Gerlach, Protuo's co-founder and vice president of marketing. Gerlach went through the dating process on eHarmony just to research the technique. "I learned a lot," she says. "And I met some very, very nice people."

With online job postings sometimes pulling in more than a thousand applicants, the ability to winnow the flood could mean the difference between being able to retain control of the hiring process and having to bring in a professional recruiter--at a typical cost of $30,000 for a midlevel hire. The time and expense of dealing with a huge influx of resumés is all the more frustrating because much of the flow comes from online applicants who indiscriminately bombard hirers with resumés. You can try a keyword search on the resumés to narrow things down, but applicants have learned to load their resumés with them, often by pasting in phrases from the job posting. Even LinkedIn has suffered from inflation, as many users aggressively build networks of people they don't really know in order to make themselves appear better connected. "There's no value in a lot of these contacts," says LinkedIn user Chris Knudsen, who heads business development for podcasting company Podango in Salt Lake City. "It can just be someone whose card you got at a trade show." (A LinkedIn spokesperson commented via e-mail: "Anyone can join the LinkedIn network; however, the quality of your own personal LinkedIn network is the responsibility of each individual.") But a well-designed survey, contends Gerlach, allows users to skim the cream.

Fred Donovan, who runs Donovan Networks, a seven-employee computer network security firm, has been flooded with applicants responding to previous postings to Monster.com and other online job boards. He is currently conducting a Protuo search and likes what he's seen so far. "I can specify that I want to see only resumés from people who say they have 10 years' experience in negotiating sales and are familiar with the software development process," he says. "I'm seeing a small, better-qualified subset of the applicants." There must be something to the idea. Other hiring sites, including Market10, Jobster, and Taleo, are introducing their own approaches to automated candidate screening. And Monster is doing the same, making available--for a fee that adds about 20 percent to the cost of posting a job--the ability to direct applicants to a questionnaire designed to rank the suitability of candidates.


Sure, candidates can try to game these surveys by being less than truthful. But Gerlach insists that surveys can be designed to stymie such people by asking questions that don't have an obviously right answer--such as whether the person prefers to work independently or in groups--and by warning candidates that they can be rated as overqualified. Protuo, which costs hirers $44 to $295 a month depending on the number of jobs they're posting and is currently free to job seekers, also offers applicants a chance to do more than post a resumé. The firm invites users to create online portfolios that can include whatever documents, photos, videos, or other material that best represents that person's career to date. (Monster is currently testing a similar capability.)

ZoomInfo, in Waltham, Massachusetts, takes a different approach. It assembles profiles of potential job candidates from all available online data, whether or not they're looking for jobs. Starting with the same techniques that Google uses to gather Web data associated with a person's name, ZoomInfo adds the significant additional step of crunching the results to pull out the most relevant information, weed out data referring to other people of the same name, and assemble a professional profile. ZoomInfo has an R&D team of 35 working on the technology. So far, the company has assembled some 34 million profiles, and as far as I can tell, most of them are fairly informative and accurate. (Check out your own name to put it to the test.)

But somebody has to pay for all those scientists, and that somebody is you. The company charges $5,000 a user per year for the ability to dig up personnel profiles by company or industry. It sounds like a lot, but ZoomInfo's COO, Bryan Burdick, notes that if you get the right candidate for a single vacancy, the price is one-sixth that of using a recruiting firm. The company also offers less expensive, more limited searching capabilities aimed at smaller companies, as well as free access to searches on individuals. Many major executive search firms, along with some 500 other corporations, already use ZoomInfo, claims Burdick. "I can find personal information, professional backgrounds--and, sometimes, damning evidence--on tens of millions of people without having to go through 1.5 million Google hits on each one," says John Boehmer, managing partner at executive search firm Barlow Group in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Boehmer is quick to point out that as ZoomInfo-like services get better, and more companies get comfortable using them, corporate hirers won't need professional recruiting firms like his to turn up candidates. "It's commoditizing the front end of what we do," he says. "Eventually, everyone will know where everyone is and how to get hold of them, so we won't be able to charge for identifying and contacting candidates." Search firms will still be valuable for assessing candidates, he contends, though he acknowledges that new e-hiring systems could eventually eat into that end of the business as they get smarter and have more online data to work with.

For that matter, it's easy to imagine the not-all-that-distant day when online tools make it so easy to find people to fill a specific slot that the notion of permanent jobs becomes irrelevant for many positions. Why hire a manager for years when you can find a new one with exactly the skill set needed for the precise tasks at hand? That's not necessarily bad for employees: Think of an economy where top employees are constantly being sought out and bid over by companies that recognize them from their Web trails as the perfect short-term solution. And talented employees would be just as smart about whom they choose to work for--using similar services to weed out companies that aren't good matches for them. You'll want to treat those people well. If you don't, and they post that fact online, it could haunt you for a long, long time.

Contributing editor David H. Freedman (whatsnext@inc.com) is a Boston-based author of several books about business and technology.