In 2002, I wrote about how words can change the meaning of a sentence. In it, I explained that choosing certain words, including formatting, can help give a sentence more impact and even change its meaning completely.
I titled the article: “It's not what you say but how you say it.”
At the time, I wrote it as a copywriter and from the perspective that words give meaning, and that your choice of words can change that meaning.
But since I've shifted from copywriting to SEO as my primary focus, I applied much of what I know about copywriting to SEO. They share a same goal: know your audience, the questions they're asking, and how to answer them.
The reason I'm bringing this up is that this morning an interested thread on Twitter started by some very respected SEOs regarding the use of “stop words.” Stop words are words like “in,” “at,” “the,” “this,” “and,” “ever,” “more,” “only,” etc.
For years, many SEO experts advocated the reduction in stop words to help rankings, such as their removal from URLs. And for while, this was true.
But with today's algorithms, I'm not so sure anymore.
Stop Words Impact Retrieval, Not Understanding
First, writing for SEO is simply writing for your user. SEO is no longer about stuffing keywords into your content, but about understanding your audience and writing for them. By giving them what they want (in the way they want it), you give Google what they want, too. SEO expert Alan Bleiweiss said it well:
Removing stop words can trim excess words and highlights keywords. But removing stop words can also make your content feel robotic, unreadable, disjointed, keyword-stuffed, and annoying.
Back then, the SEO reasoning made sense: search engines look for keywords and use information retrieval processes that look for and pay attention to them, such as TF-IDF or “term frequency and inverse document frequency.”
Without getting too technical (I may be a geek but I'm far from being a technical engineer), it means the number of times a keyword appears on the page, and how important it is in relation to all the other keywords on the page (and across a set of pages, such as the rest of the blog, for example).
That's where things like “keyword density” have become common practice.
TF-IDF is still important (to help in the extraction of keywords, for example). But it doesn't help to understand their meaning. The growing popularity of machine learning (or “artificial intelligence,” although that's misleading) has helped to improve the search experience by understanding keywords.
I've mentioned before that stop words are important for SEO. They give adjacent keywords context and therefore the sentence (or phrase) meaning. Sometimes, a stop word can completely alter the meaning of a keyword.
It's All In The (Search) Intent
Remember, SEO is about matching the reader's search. But while writing content that informs the reader is one thing, doing it in a way that specifically satisfies their search and provides value is another.
That is what SEO is becoming.
It's about matching the intent behind your patient's query and not just the query itself. It's what Google wants and the way Google is growing, as we see with its increasing sophistication in information retrieval and processing using natural language and machine-learning algorithms.
In plain language, it simply means that Google is getting better at reading and understanding information like a human being. Therefore, it makes sense to write for human beings, too, and forget all the search-engine trickery.
So, are stop words important in SEO? They should be, because we, as humans, use them all the time in natural speech. Will it help your rankings? Not directly.
But they likely have some influence.
The greater the match with the user's intent is, the greater the relevance given to a result will be. To determine this, Google pays attention to “implicit user feedback” such as user clicks and dwell times. This feedback helps feed machine learning, which, according to Google, influences ranking factors.
In short, we went from keyword-driven SEO to intent-driven SEO.
Use Natural Language. Naturally.
Back when the web was young, people were slowly adopting the Internet (and computers, too). It made sense to type in keywords into search forms because a) people were learning how to type and b) machines were rudimentary. Searches were entirely keyword-driven for this reason.
But today, we live in an Internet-connected, mobile-first world. We use smart devices, type in complete sentences, use auto-complete suggestions, or dictate queries using voice search into Google, Alexa, or Siri.
So stop words are now more important than they've ever been.
This is where search is going: retrieving content not based on keywords but based on user intent. Since stop words can alter the meaning (and therefore, the intent) of the query, it goes to reason that stop words have a role to play.
Here's an outstanding example.
Similar to my article about how formatting can change the meaning of a sentence, my favourite writing tool, ProWritingAid, just tweeted this example of the way stop words can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.
Provide great content that satisfies your patients' search and user intent, and you also provide a great user experience. In fact, creating keyword-stuffed gibberish you think Google wants will only kill the user experience.
So don't let stop words stop you from writing good, meaningful content for your users. Most times, they're more like “start words.”