That’s right folks… after years of telling the world to pretend that "stop words" don’t exist, at least when you’re writing copy, now you can really do it for real, because…
Stop Words Are Dead!
Well, they’re dead at Google and MSN anyway. Yahoo might want to get it in gear. I didn’t bother checking Ask, A9, or any of the other spares – I’ll leave that as an exercise for enterprising readers who actually care what the 4th-tier search engines are up to right now.
What are stop words? Well, stop words are (were) words that are so common that search engines have chosen to (sort of) ignore them, by not indexing them when they crawl a web page. Words like (a, and, is, or, the, was), etc.
This doesn’t (didn’t) mean that they have no effect on search results, because the index records the position of words, so even a "blank" in the word order created by a stop word could still affect the order and proximity of other words that you searched for. If this makes no sense, don’t worry – it didn’t matter much in the first place, and now stop words are dead.
Did I Miss A Memo?
If this isn’t news to anyone, someone let me know, because I haven’t seen it written up anywhere. It was news to me anyway – not especially exciting news, but that’s beside the point. A couple years ago when I was working on the Search Engine Marketing Kit, stop words were definitely in effect. We demonstrated this with a bunch of comparative searches like:
- cats or dogs vs. cats and dogs
- kick the bucket vs. kick a bucket
These search queries will return the exact same search results, if the words (a, and, or, the) aren’t being indexed. If those words are being indexed, then we’d expect to see different search results – as we now see on MSN and Google. You have to do a bunch of searches to make sure, because common words, even when they are indexed, have a fairly small effect on ranking.
So, last month, a friend of mine asked me to look over a list of stop words he’d received and let me know if they were correct. When I checked on Yahoo, most of them were correct, although Yahoo does show different "universal search" type results (video, product, etc.) with different queries, the organic search results themselves did not appear to change on any of my test queries.
When I checked on MSN and Google though… none of the "stop words" on the list worked as stop words. Zippo. So it looks like somewhere along the line, 2 of the 3 major search engines stopped stopping, and started indexing every word.
Why should you even care about stop words?
Well, if you’ve been ignoring my advice all these years and fretting about stop words, you have one more reason to stop worrying and start writing naturally. If you use search engines, it’s at least a small improvement in the quality of search results when you’re using common words, as often happens when searching for books, lyrics, movies, music, Vogon poetry, and the like.
Fact check for me?
- If you can find stop words that appear to still be "working" on MSN and Google, do let me know.
- If you can find some indication that Yahoo is indexing commonly known stop words, do let me know.
- If someone else has written this up and I really did just miss the memo, please post the original citation.
In other news…
My Stompernet colleague Don Crowther has put together a simply amazing video on how to leverage social media, social marketing, and Web 2.0 for traffic, conversion, and SEO. You need to watch the whole thing to fully understand the point, but it’s absolutely worth your time to do just that. Don’s also releasing a free PDF report with more information either today or tomorrow. While it’s in support of a coaching program that he’s launching soon, my friends at Stompernet really know how to "move the free line" and give away great information. It’s too bad they had to cut it down to only 50 minutes, but as I understand it the other 20-30 minutes was almost as good.
Designers and conversion specialists: Another Stompernet colleague, Andy Edmonds (our "chief scientist"), spent a good deal of time and treasure in 2007 developing a "vision simulation tool" called Stomper Scrutinizer that works just like a web browser, to show you how people see the colors, type, and navigational elements on your web page designs. Then our fearless CEO decided to, what the heck, give the software away as a holiday gift to the community. Nothing to buy, just go get this free software. The video linked from that blog post is a real eye-opener, by the way. Working with smart people is really cool.