In this week’s edition of the Mediavine SEO series, we’re asking you to stop what you’re doing for a few moments and consider a few hundred words about stop words.
Terribly unfunny intros aside, what does that even mean?
What are Stop Words?
In computer algorithm speak, stop words are the words you remove before sending text for processing. Generic words such as: a, an, the, what.
The idea behind the concept of stop words is that these are not keywords, and don’t provide helpful information or context for search engines.
As is the case in everyday speech, these stop words are popular online — they make up approximately 25% of the content of the internet.
By filtering these out, Google is able to cut down the size of the web by a full quarter. How do they do this and what does it change?
How Google Filters Stop Words
If you want to see stop words in action, look no further than the Google search bar.
Note: As we discussed in our keyword research post, remember to go Incognito before browsing to see results as the general public does.
Use my go-to, delicious SEO example and Google a cheesecake recipe. But rather than just typing “cheesecake recipe”, add an “a” in front.
That “a” doesn’t change the meaning or user intent of the search, as the reader is looking for a singular cheesecake recipe either way.
You’ll see search results that are nearly identical, because in all likelihood, Google filtered out the “a” and returned the same results.
All of this makes sense, but as it pertains to blogging and what SEO is from your perspective, should you worry about stop words?
Stop Words and SEO
If you’re dialed in to the SEO community, or familiar with SEO tools like Yoast, you may have read about stop words before.
For example, Yoast used to remove stop words automatically from individual post slugs or permalinks on particular pages.
The general advice from the SEO community has been to remove stop words in important, on-page areas with limited space.
For example, in areas such as the page title, meta description and url, you’re limited in how much Google will index for each.
Take the page title for example. Google will typically only show 50-60 characters, so it’s recommended that your keywords appear in the first 50-60 characters — or better yet, to cap the full title at that length.
You can tell where we’re going with this; 50-60 characters isn’t that much, and many headlines have stop words in them.
Removing stop words frees up more room for keywords, and/or the ability to improve your page’s keyword density, prominence and matching with your key phrase.
This also helps to improve your keyword proximity, giving you even further gains.
(More on those fancy SEO terms later.)
The same logic applies to meta descriptions and URLs, where Google only indexes a certain amount of text. Are you using your text wisely?
Do you want Google indexing keywords in this limited, valuable real estate, or stop words that will be filtered out anyway?
The list goes on. Individual headings, sub-headings and even the text of your article itself — remember, we’re talking about 25% of all words — could be examined this way if you really dove into it.
The question is whether it’s worth it, and my answer is similar to a lot of advice you’ll read on the Mediavine blog:
Should you nix Stop Words from Page Titles, Meta Descriptions, URLs & Posts?
When I say don’t stress, I don’t mean don’t care altogether. Just mostly.
Don’t obsess over stop words at the expense of more important SEO factors like internal links and page titles (more on that shortly), not to mention at the expense of your time creating content.
That said, there is some validity to keeping things short and clean.
You’ll notice we keep URLs short (see this very page), removing stop words and most other words even. URLs don’t have to be grammatically correct, and should be as efficient and concise as you can make them.
I’ll give the stop words police that one. However, that philosophy doesn’t apply to your post and title, which should always be grammatically correct and coherent for both Google and your readers.
Don’t Sacrifice Readability for Theoretical SEO
I would argue that for any site, readability and well-written content is more important than advice from SEO experts.
For example, when it comes to your page title, removing stop words is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Your page title is THE most important on-page SEO aspect you have, both in terms of search rankings and potential users’ first impression of your site and its content on the results page.
Think about it this way: Users aren’t going to respond well to search results featuring incoherent English fragments you strung together in order to remove stop words. Would you?
Google algorithms are powerful, but so is your human audience, which will determine your click-through rate and therefore your traffic based on this critical first impression.
Beyond that, overdoing it with the removal of stop words can potentially hurt SEO in its own right.
Google Understands Stop Words in Context Now!
Wait, what about my example at the top of the post?!
Google’s technology gets smarter all the time, and one of many examples of this is “Natural Language Processing,”
In short, computers can read and analyze text in order to understand language now, not simply parse keywords.
When Google announced its recent update, BERT, it did so with an in-depth look at a query using stop words.
The example “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa” indicated that “to” was a key component to that phrase.
They needed to know the direction, and they got it.
“To” is a classic stop word, yet if you removed it from the page title and post when using your focus keyword, you would legitimately hurt your chances of ranking on that content.
That’s why our recommendation is that if stop words are useful to your reader, Google will probably figure that out.
From a content creator’s perspective, leave it to the reader — and robots — to decide whether or not to remove them.
Common Stop Words
We put together an infographic of common stop words. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, and again, it’s not something to worry about.
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