If you’re confused about how to handle stop words in SEO, that’s entirely understandable.
Because there’s conflicting information out there. Not only that, but the search engines themselves are changing their approach to stop words.
In this article you’ll discover:
- what stop words are
- why they’re called stop words
- whether or not you should remove them
Let’s dive in!
What are Stop Words in SEO?
Stop words in SEO, also known as ‘Google stop words’, are common words that don’t change the meaning of the keyword or keyword.
For example, in the search query ‘show me paris hotels’, ‘show me’ is a stop phrase because it doesn't change the meaning of the search term (the search engine knows that you want to see Paris hotels).
Stop words include:
- articles (a, an, the)
- pronouns (I, you, your, his, hers, him, her, ours, etc)
- prepositions (as, at, by, to, for, from, in, into, of, onto, etc)
- conjunctions (and, or, but, unless, since, because, although, etc)
- most auxiliary verbs (am, is, are, was, were, etc).
It's widely estimated that stop words make up 25% of the English language.
And that became a problem for search engines.
Because it meant there were a lot of unnecessary words clogging up the search engine databases. To put it another way, the search engines realized they could deliver search results faster if they filtered out stop words.
Why are They Called Stop Words?
But why are they called stop words?
According to one explanation, the term ‘stop words’ was coined by Hans Peter Luhn, who was a pioneer of computers and information retrieval techniques. In computing, stop words are words which are filtered out before or after processing of natural language data.
Another explanation is that it comes from the days of telegrams. Telegrams used to be peppered with the word STOP.
There was no charge for the word ‘stop’, whereas a period or a full-stop was charged.
Because each word in a telegram was charged, people would leave out any word that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Over time, those unnecessary words came to be known as ‘stop words’.
Are Stop Words Bad for SEO?
Until fairly recently, search engines would ignore stop words, because they didn’t change the meaning of a keyword or keyword phrase. Ignoring them meant that search results could be delivered much faster.
And that led to a widespread view that ‘stop’ words have a negative effect on SEO. The thinking behind this view was as follows:
- Stop words are ignored by the search engines
- You only have limited space in an SEO title
- Why waste that space on stop words?
And it’s true – in an SEO title, you only have 50 to 60 characters to play with. Every stop word you include is at the cost of a keyword.
In general, this advice still holds good. In a SERP snippet, Google gives you very limited text for your:
- SEO title
- meta description
In these three places, it’s better to give preference to keywords over stop words.
But that doesn’t mean you need to eliminate stop words in those three places, especially if the stop words are part of the meaning of your keyword.
Here are some examples from my website, with the stop words marked in red:
If you remove the stop words from these examples, it makes it more difficult for both humans and search engines to understand what the article is about.
Also, in some cases stop words are crucial – remove the stop word and the meaning of the keyword changes entirely.
For example, if you type ‘the queen’ into Google you’ll get very different results than if you type ‘queen’. The first query gives you search results relating to Queen Elizabeth II, whereas the second query returns results about the rock band headed by Freddie Mercury.
As you can see, stop words can play an important role in keyword phrases. They may form part of the meaning of the keyword – take them away and the meaning of the keyword changes.
The search engines are aware of this. And that’s why Google, for example, is relying more and more on Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand search queries. So, stop words are becoming more important.
4. Stop Words and the Hummingbird Algorithm
The Hummingbird algorithm, which Google introduced in 2013, is all about natural language. It allows Google to better understand conversational queries.
And of course, stop words are the essence of natural language. That’s why they’re so common – we can’t speak English without them.
So with Hummingbird, Google is no longer ignoring stop words. The algorithm understands that stop words affect the meaning of the keywords in a search query.
This trend has continued with the BERT algorithm.
Stop Words and the BERT Update
The BERT Update, introduced by Google in October 2019, is a deep learning algorithm related to natural language processing. It takes natural language processing a step further.
Here’s an example of how BERT uses stop words to understand the nuances of a search query.
Take this search query: “2019 Brazil traveler to usa need a visa”. Before BERT, Google would have understood this as a query about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil.
But with BERT, Google understands that this query is about a Brazilian traveling to the U.S., and not the other way around. In other words, the stop word “to” matters a great deal.
Stop Words and Voice Search
In voice search, where conversational queries are standard, stop words are crucial.
Stop words are a big component of the searches that people do when speaking into a smartphone or a virtual assistant such as Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa. And that’s another reason why search engines are starting to pay more attention to stop words.
So back to the main question: what are stop words and are they bad for SEO?
Here are the main takeaways:
- Stop words are mostly common words that don’t change the meaning of a keyword or keyword phrase
- But sometimes they are part of the meaning of the keyword – remove them and the meaning of the keyword changes
- With natural language processing, search engines are paying more attention to stop words and how they affect the meaning of a query
- Stop words still take up valuable space in things like your SEO title, meta description and permalink slug
- In general, always give preference to keywords over stop words
- But don't remove stop words from URLs if they are part of the meaning of the keyword phrase