Should Search Engines "Hold Users' Hands?"

Oct 31, 2006 • 10:13 am | comments (0) by | Filed Under Search Engine & SEO Theory

Search Engines are in the business of providing relevant results, whether paid or organic. In order to do this in a timely fashion, many major engines will ignore what are commonly known as “stop words,” such as “the,” “if,” “for,” “what,” etc… Thus if someone enters a search phrase such as “what are better mousetraps,” the “what are” is omitted from the search of the index, often yielding most of the same results as a search for “better mousetraps,” in this example. This can actually pose to be an interesting dilemma for search engine optimization managers.

A recent thread at Search Engine Watch forums posed a question about the handling within MSN Live of search queries with and without stop words included. An interesting discussion sprouted, with member fulton savage asking “How many users know of/use search query operators?” This lead Ian McAnerin to state

That's really the problem... The vast majority of users don't use quotes or operators. Therefore the default behaviour of a search engine is a very important issue. It doesn't matter how they act when operators are used (they should all work the same), it matters how they act when explicit operators are not used. At this point, the search engine needs to go into "handholding" mode, basically trying to guess at the best methodology for the words typed in. Generally up until recently, this meant assuming the AND operator.
Please share your thoughts or opinions at the Search Engine Watch Forums.

As a side note: In the above example, in my results, “” disappears from the top 5 when the words “what” and “are” are included. What makes this happen? The supposedly ignored words have affected the rankings slightly in this case, and it is likely the other “ignored” words would do the same. It is possible that "what" and "are" are included in more in-link anchor texts than some of the others that appear without that in the search, and it is also possible that "” has over-optimized for the term "better mousetraps," getting trapped in a filter that does not pick up the flag when "what" and "are" are included...would love to hear more opinions on this idea in the comments.

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