SEO Strategy: Do stop words affect search engine rankings?

Why I stopped caring about stop words and decided to focus on readability.

We SEOs are always trying to decode aspects of Google’s search engine algorithm in order to improve our ranking results. One question that’s been nagging me for a long time has to do with keyword optimization and the use of stop words. While I wouldn’t describe this issue as a “raging debate,” I have found conflicting advice on the subject.

One of the leading opinions comes from Yoast SEO, who have long flagged stop words in focus keywords as being potentially negative for your search results. They recently took a tentative step back from that position, and I have to say that I’m relieved. So, if you’ve ever wondered how to handle this issue yourself (or if you have no idea what I’m talking about but would like to find out), here’s my take on stop words and SEO.

What are stop words?

Put simply, they’re the most common words in a language. They include articles (a, the), pronouns (your, his, ours), prepositions (to, from, for), and conjunctions (and, or, but), as well as most helping verbs (have, will, should).

In the past, Google filtered these words out of their search algorithm. I don’t know if this was because Google thought they weren’t important, or if they muddied results too much, or if Google simply hadn’t mastered their technology enough to handle them intelligently.

Whatever the reason, stop words gained a bad reputation in SEO. The common wisdom was that you would rank better if you removed them from your blog titles and your URL.

The problem is, not all these small words are irrelevant.

As boring and functional as stop words may be, they’re also some of the most important words in the English language. They’re common for a reason: you can’t speak English without them. And by excluding them from their search engine algorithm, Google was missing out on some crucial context that would make their results more accurate.

And as we all know, accuracy is Google’s bread and butter.

So, back in 2013, Google released the Hummingbird update for their search engine algorithm. Hummingbird allowed Google to focus more on the intent behind a search query. It allowed Google to handle more conversational queries, and that meant stop words no longer had to be taboo. Still, it took a while for SEOs to figure out how much of an impact this would have on optimizing keywords and key phrases.

What does this mean for keyword research?

We’ve heard about “short head” and “long tail” for years. Short head keywords are one or two-word phrases that have high search volume but do a poor job of predicting searcher intent. Long tail keywords have relatively low search volume because they are highly specific. But this specificity also allows them to home in on the correct target audience.

The problem is that, in the pre-Hummingbird era, trying to exclude stop words from long-tail key phrases lead to some pretty unreadable copy.

For example, let’s say I wanted to write a post that covered search engine results for long-tail keywords. That phrase, “search engine results for long-tail keywords,” has a stop word right in the middle (for). I could remove it by saying “long-tail keyword search engine results,” but who would want to read that?

No one. This is because…

Loaded noun phrases lead to exhausted copy.

Zealously eliminating stop words from your writing leads to heavier compound noun phrases, which impact readability. And if you’re wondering what a compound noun phrase is, it’s when you string nouns together like adjectives in order to talk about a very specific thing.

You can find this a lot in technical, academic, and “corporate” writing. It is what leads to phrases like “culture change management,” or “database vendor license agreement,” or “search engine optimization strategy plan.”

The English language, like most Germanic languages, allows speakers to string noun modifiers together almost indefinitely. But most of us naturally collapse these phrases once they get to be more than two words long through use of acronyms (“SEO strategy plan”) or stop words (“license agreement for database vendors”).

We also tend to drop modifying phrases once they’ve done their job. For instance, at the beginning of an article we may need to specify that the type of strategy plan we have in mind is for search engine optimization. But once we’ve said that once, we can go on to talk about our strategy plan without having to include the words “search engine optimization” or “SEO” with every iteration.

So, how should you handle stop words for SEO?

The point of this post is not to say that you should use stop words carelessly. If you want to write a strong title for your content, it should still contain concrete, meaningful keywords.

I could have titled this post: “Should I or should I not care about stop words in my blog title?”

That’s a long title, and it also contains… at least nine stop words (in bold).

Instead, my chosen title, “SEO Strategy: Do Stop Words Affect Search Engine Rankings?” contains only one.

That said, while stop words usually make your copy more natural-sounding, these phrases do make it harder to measure search volume. Google might be able to spot the intent behind certain phrases and adjust for minor variations, but most keyword research tools are not so sophisticated.

With that in mind, I propose an update to keyword research strategy.

First: do keep checking your keywords, but look at multiple variations. This will help you understand how popular your topic is.

Second: take a peek at the other results. Search your own blog title and see what comes up. If the results are drastically different from what you intended, then you’ll have to rethink your keyword choice.

Finally: don’t overvalue your focus keyword. If Google understands intent, then it can also spot that “toddler shoes” and “shoes for toddlers” are basically interchangeable. In fact, it might be better to vary your keywords rather than adhere religiously to just one.

Above all, never sacrifice your readability for the sake of “SEO.” You’re not writing for Google, you’re writing for people. If that means optimizing for conversational phrases that include stop words, so be it.

Published 11/11/17 by Laura Lynch