Are stop words really bad for your content?

What’s the difference between a mathematical concept and a 1999 sci-fi movie starring Keanu Reeves? According to Google, it’s the word ‘the’.

10518914_mStop words (words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘if’ etc) have often been deemed ‘useless’ by content marketers as search engines couldn’t recognise them and they tended to get in the way of efficient keyphrases. However, it’s now been discovered that search engines pay more attention to these words than previously thought. Is it time to start using them again?

Context is everything

In the case of the above example, the placement of a particular stop word is very important. If you want the mathematical concept, you can just type in ‘matrix’. If you want the movie, it’s better to type in ‘The Matrix’.

It is thought that Google has developed an algorithm to determine which stop words are useful and which are useless based on the context of a particular search term. However, search engines were not always so adept at recognising the importance of these words, leading marketers to try and weed them out of their copy as much as possible.

Why were these words so bad?

Even though stop words didn’t mean anything to search engines, they could still be counted as ‘blanks’ which could dilute the impact of keyphrases. Content marketing agencies could get around this problem simply by removing the words altogether and finding ever-more creative ways to fit unnatural-sounding keyphrases into their articles.

However, a number of years ago it was discovered that several of the larger search engines (including Bing and Google) had begun to index stop words along with the other words in a keyphrase. Copy which included these words suddenly began to rank more highly than efficient but artificial, over-optimised pieces of writing.

Mixing it up

Google’s recognition of stop words seemed to chime perfectly with its newfound taste for informative, long copy. It was now a very good idea for marketers to make sure they had a good mix of keyphrases in their articles, some of them containing the formerly ‘useless’ words.

Reintroducing the words was particularly important concerning links within article text. Search engines can recognise when a link is editorial (ie when it is used to back up an assertion in the article) and when it is not editorial (ie advertising or spam) by how the link is presented. If it’s a long, natural-sounding piece of text which uses stop words, a link will more likely be seen as valuable and non-spammy by the search engine.

Where stop words still matter

Stop words can still be an issue when it comes to crafting article titles, however. This is because, while Google will index all of an article’s title words, only the first twelve will count as title hits.

This is where you can still do harm to your SEO. Pack your title with too many ‘and’s, ‘if’s or ‘buts’ and you run the risk of pushing a valuable keyphrase into the effectively useless 13th position.

There are still SEO companies and websites advising against using stop words in copy at all, which is not only unhelpful but harmful. In order to receive recognition from Google, articles must provide an easy, natural reading experience for the user – and stop words are an important part of making this happen.

Find out more about our SuperSonic SEO strategies.

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