Stop Sign

In Defence Of Stop Words


I was asked an interesting question by a client recently who, from when we very first spoke, made it clear that he knew a little bit about SEO. I won’t give away his identity, so I’ve changed the industry and city, but the point remains.

He emailed:

Can we change the title tag to ‘Piano Lessons Newcastle’? Everyone seems to have that on the 1st page of the results.

The current title tag is, again with our cloak of anonymity on, “Piano Lessons In Newcastle From Just £12 | Brand Name”.

I only made a start on his SEO a couple of weeks back, and the site has moved from the low 30s to 11th place for both Piano Lessons and Piano Tuition in the area, so it’s so far so good, even though I’ve only done the absolute basics on the home page so far, ie, new title tag, meta description, headers and a tidy-up of the copy.

We’ve had it drilled into us that ‘stop words’ are bad – Yoast used to work itself into a lather at the mere thought of them until recently – but as Google is moving towards a better understanding of natural language, especially with voice search on the rise, are our robot masters in Mountain View finally moving away from SEO-speak?

Yeah, they’re just waiting for us SEOs to realise it.

Aside from very minor differences in order, the Top 10 results are largely identical right across the country whether you search for ‘Piano Lessons [Location]’ or ‘Piano Tuition In [Location]’. In fact, around 25% of the websites in cities I’ve searched in don’t even mention piano lessons in their title tags at all; Google is divining intent, imagine that!

What does this mean for our castigated stop words? The unloved articles and prepositions such as ‘to’, ‘in’, ‘on’ and even ‘the’, all words we can’t live without in the English language.

Joining the dots, it means that we can cast off the shackles of awkward and spammy title tags.

I’ve done SEO for more driving instructors than any other niche, and this is a genuine example of a title tag from a website which must’ve been sprinkled in some SEO magic dust at some point in the recent past (again the city has been altered):

Driving Lessons Gloucester | Driving School Gloucester | Driving Instructor Gloucester

If a potential learner driver scrolls across that title tag, are they really going to click on it? Or are they more likely to think it looks weird, bordering on the desperate, or even illiterate? They might even wonder why the can’t see the whole title, as the ellipses kick in after the 3rd ‘Driving’ in the SERPs.

Or, are they more likely to have their eye drawn to the listing which promises ‘3 Hours Of Free Driving Lessons In Gloucester!’?

Here’s what I believe are the future for title tags in 2019 and beyond: readability and honesty.

I know, it’s earth-shattering stuff.

Rules are there to be broken, of course, but a good starting place for writing a modern title tag would be:

  1. Say what the website does and where it does it (if it’s a local business)
  2. Include a hook, such as a special offer, free postage or guarantee
  3. Branding if there’s enough room
  4. Use stop words

‘3 Hours Of Free Driving Lessons In Gloucester!’ is an absolute doozy.

Google is constantly getting better at giving searchers what they want, including relevant results from a list of synonyms so comprehensive that Roget himself would be puce with astonishment.

The age of keyword stuffing in title tags is dead, stop words have risen to the fore, and the age of legibility has arrived.

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