Should you use stop words in your focus keywords?

Google usually filters out stop words, like ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘of’ and ‘for’, from search queries, and this is why the Yoast SEO plugin used to advise you not to use stop words in your focus keyword (and choose a focus keyword that doesn’t use stop words instead). But that changed in Yoast SEO 3.1, so stop words in your focus keyword no longer stop your post from getting a green bullet. In this post, we explain why we made this change.

But before we start, you can see a full list of words Yoast SEO considers to be stop words, in this article.

Google’s Hummingbird update

In recent years, Google has become much better at dealing with stop words, so it simply doesn’t matter anymore whether or not there are stop words between the words you want to be found for. Google is very capable of handling longer search phrases – in fact, that was the purpose of Hummingbird. And it’s usually much easier to optimize your text for a keyphrase, which is likely to include stop words. A good keyphrase is often more like a short sentence and will make an article much more readable and natural than one optimized for a keyword that doesn’t have stop words. So, from a readability point-of-view, you definitely want to optimize your articles with focus keywords that include stop words.

Although Google is better at handling stop words in queries these days, you still need to give some serious thought to your focus keyword or focus keyphrase.

Before you decide on the exact formulation of your focus keyword or keyphrase, follow these steps:

Step 1: Google your focus keyword

The first step in deciding the exact wording of your focus keyphrase is to Google the two (or three) options you’re considering. If the results are similar then it won’t matter too much which keyphrase you choose. But in some cases, search results will be quite different. Here’s a good example: if you search for [notebook], you’ll get results for all kinds of portable computers, while a search for [the notebook], will get you… Ryan Gosling.

Step 2: Decide on your focus keyword using Google Trends

The second step in deciding whether or not to use a stop word in the focus keyword you’re optimizing for is to look at search volume in Google Trends. Check the two (or three) versions of your keyword you’re considering and see which one gets the most traffic. For instance, if you’re choosing between [shoes for kids] or [shoes kids], you’ll instantly see that the search volume of [shoes kids] is much higher, so that’s the focus keyword to optimize for. Or… you could choose both! Well, you can if you have Yoast SEO Premium.

Keyphrases vs keywords

Shorter search queries are often the more popular ones, but your competition knows that too! Search volume for keywords without stop words seems higher than the search volume for keywords containing stop words. So, in many cases, it could pay off to optimize your articles as you always have – without using stop words. But search volume for the keyphrases with stop words seems to be growing, so it might pay to optimize for both keywords!

In our research on how Google handles stop words, we found that a search term like [shoes kids] is handled in exactly the same manner as [kids shoes] – the order of the words is irrelevant to Google. However, for [shoes for kids], Google tries to find the exact match, which means the order of the words is important. So, search queries with stop words are handled a little differently by Google. This is also true for how Google shows traffic in Google Trends: [shoes kids] and [kids shoes] have exactly the same volume because Google treats them as the same thing. So don’t make the mistake of adding them up when comparing them to the version of your keyphrase that uses a stop word. Watch out for that!

Conclusion

Before deciding how to optimize your post, always look into the differences in results pages and search volumes. It’s really important to at least do some basic keyword research, and if you really can’t decide which focus keyword to use, just optimize for both using Yoast SEO Premium!

Read more: Keyword research: the ultimate guide »

Learn how to write online copy that ranks!

  • Covers all from picking keywords to publishing
  • Includes personal feedback
  • On-demand SEO training by Yoast
  • End up with a ready-to-use blog post!
More info


Check out our must read articles about Content SEO