There are certain words that search engines may ignore, both in search queries and search results.
Words like the, in, or a.
These are known as stop words and they are typically articles, prepositions, conjunctions, or pronouns. They don't change the meaning of a query and are used when writing content to structure sentences properly.
You won't have to look far to find page headings, title tags, or even body copy where stop words are missing.
Want to see an example? Take a look at these two search queries:
Restaurants in Brooklyn
In this case, "in" is the stop word. But remove it, and the contextual meaning of the query doesn't change.
However, if you write “Restaurants Brooklyn” in your content, it reads poorly without them. You wouldn’t write content in full sentences missing key words that tie everything together.
SEOs shouldn’t spend their time worrying too much about stop words or trying to figure out whether they should remove them from anywhere on their website.
What Are Stop Words in SEO?
As already discussed, stop words are common words, such as articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns, that search engines may ignore. Words such as the, in, or a.
The concept of stop words was first coined by Hans Peter Luhn, one of the pioneers in information retrieval.
But how much do you need to worry about stop words as an SEO? And how should the fact that search engines ignore these change the way you approach content creation and optimization?
Does Google Ignore Stop Words?
Stop words used to be used by search engines to speed up crawling and indexing to save storage space. These got ignored both in search queries and in search results.
These words have nothing to do with the content at a contextual level, and removing them doesn’t change the overall meaning of a text.
However, that doesn't mean you should remove stop words from your content. Below, we'll look at how you should and shouldn't use stop words when optimizing a site.
Here's what Bill Slawski has to say about stop words and how Google (may) treat them:
It is possible the Google continues to use stopwords but they treat them differently than they did on the past, acknowledging that some are meaningful. I first wrote about those on 2008: https://t.co/ySZayYZCkm— Bill Slawski ⚓ (@bill_slawski) February 6, 2021
It's probably a good idea to explain that or to remove such lists.
Stop words can sometimes have a big impact on a SERP. Dawn Anderson points out a great example of how one word, in this case the word "the," could change the entire SERP:
Suspect a lot of that has changed even more with the advent of contextual natural language ML. A lot of those 'stop words' are glue that hold context together. Plus also, 'The Who' is not the same as 'who' so undoubtedly the whole stop word unused thing is likely way out of date— Dawn Anderson (@dawnieando) February 6, 2021
Dawn also provided further evidence that search engines do not use stop lists by referencing this study from Standford and quoted:
The general trend in IR systems over time has been from standard use of quite large stop lists (200-300 terms) to very small stop lists (7-12 terms) to no stop list whatsoever. Web search engines generally do not use stop lists.
She went on to cite more examples as well:
More from that piece: "The phrase query ``President of the United States'', which contains two stop words, is more precise than President AND ``United States''. The meaning of flights to London is likely to be lost if the word to is stopped out."— Dawn Anderson (@dawnieando) February 8, 2021
Generally speaking, search engines use stop words to better understand the context of the search as they can greatly impact what is represented to users.
Using Stop Words in Your Content
Now that we've discussed what stop words in SEO are, let's look at how to use them effectively within the different aspects of your URL, page titles, and content.
Should You Use Stop Words in Your Page URLs?
Stop words in URLs have been discussed for years in the SEO community, but you shouldn't worry about it too much.
If your site runs on WordPress and you use the Yoast SEO plugin, you probably remember seeing recommendations to remove stop words from your page URL.
It’s not uncommon for a CMS or webmaster to use the page heading or page title to create a page’s slug. This can result in lengthy URLs.
You can check out our guide to creating SEO-friendly URLs. We discuss shortening or optimizing where possible to keep URLs easy to read and meaningful.
However, if you must shorten a lengthy URL, you can consider removing stop words if they don't impact the context. Google's view is that they recommend keeping a simple URL structure.
Should You Use Stop Words in Your Page Titles and Headings?
There are plenty of headings and title tags in the SERP that are missing stop words. However, in our opinion, you should keep them in place.
Title tags aren't just used by search engines. They show on the SERPs:
Imagine the above example had a title tag without stop words. It would read as "Best Shows Movies Streaming HBO Max - Variety." Removing the stop words here makes it read awkwardly and it's obvious that a part of the title is missing.
When an element is seen by users and used to decide whether to click on (or stay on) your page, you should always prioritize user experience.
Should You Use Stop Words in Your Content?
This is a simple one:
You should never remove stop words from your body content; this would make it totally unreadable. You must put your users first and never sacrifice their experience to how you perceive a search engine may view your content.
Stop Words are Important for User Experience
The reality is that stop words aren't something that most marketers need to worry about. By understanding what they are and how search engines process them, you're better equipped to make the right decisions around using them.
Ignore the advice to remove them from titles and headings as this can harm user experience, but consider excluding them from your page URLs if you need to shorten them and it doesn't change the context.
Always put your users first, and you'll usually find that this is also the best thing for search engines, too.
A Comprehensive A-Z List of 175+ Stop Words
There's no single universal list of stop words, but we've pulled together a comprehensive list of more than 175.
Use it as a reference point when optimizing your site and understanding how search engines may handle these words.