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Keyword Stemming: Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

Keyword stemming is said to be beneficial for search rankings. But is it truly a ranking factor? Let's take a look at the evidence.

Keyword Stemming

Keyword stemming, once a popular search engine optimization tactic, has become an antiquated practice as search algorithms advance.

Stemming involves modifying keywords with different prefixes or suffixes to target more searches. For example, using “hydrate,” “dehydrate,” and “rehydrate” to rank for queries about hydration.

This article explores how keyword stemming emerged, why it worked initially, and how modern best practices focus on comprehensively answering user questions rather than gaming the system.

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The Claim: Keyword Stemming As A Ranking Factor

The claims around keyword stemming suggest that modifying key terms can help a page rank for more queries.

This technique emerged in the early 2000s when search engines like Google had limited natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. Stemming attempted to game these basic algorithms by targeting slight keyword variations.

In the 2000s, intentionally using keyword stems was seen as an effective way to optimize for more queries. Search engines can now understand meaning and intent much more effectively.

Is keyword stemming still an effective way to optimize pages for more queries?

The Evidence For Keyword Stemming As A Ranking Factor

Keyword stemming is one of the oldest confirmed updates to Google’s algorithm, dating back to 2003.

There are conflicting reports that stemming technology was baked into Google’s Florida update, which rolled out in November 2003. However, Google added word stemming to its algorithm in a separate update that came out around the same time.

Long before the days of Matt Cutts and John Mueller, the SEO community depended on posts from “GoogleGuy” on WebmasterWorld.com. This individual confirmed Google began utilizing word stemming in a post dated December 4, 2003:

“Within the last month or so we’ve made stemming be more visible, but it’s been in a testing mode that’s less visible for a while longer. If you like it – great! If you don’t like it, you can put a plus sign in front of the word to turn it off, e.g. searching for cert advisory returns great results at #1 and #2 from CERT because we can also match against advisories.

If you really only want to match the word “advisory” though, you can search for cert +advisory, and then we’ll only match that exact word.”

This was a novel idea in 2003, but now it’s known that Google can return results containing keyword variations in the query. We see evidence of this every day in almost every search engine result page (SERP).

How Search Engines Advanced Beyond Stemming

Modern search algorithms utilize advanced NLP and machine learning to understand semantic meaning and context. They connect different forms of words and synonyms automatically.

Google’s rankings are based more on understanding searcher intent and providing relevant results, not just matching keywords.

Stemming could hurt rankings today by violating search quality guidelines. That’s because the practice leads to unnatural language that caters to search engines rather than users.

Google wants comprehensive content that answers user questions, not stuffed keywords.

[Recommended Read] → Ranking Factors: Systems, Signals, and Page Experience

Keyword Stemming Is Definitely Not A Ranking Factor

While Google can recognize keyword “stems,” and use them to return more relevant results, it’s inaccurate to call keyword stemming a ranking factor.

As search technology advances, antiquated tactics give way to quality, user experience, and searcher intent. With its sophisticated algorithms, Google no longer depends on keyword stems to understand relevancy.

Using variations of words along with synonyms is something good writers do naturally, as it makes for more interesting writing than repeating the same word.

Simply using a keyword naturally in its various forms has replaced purposeful stemming. Google rewards in-depth content on a topic more than tricky optimizations today.

Focus on helpful, natural content. Don’t worry about this ancient addition to Google’s algorithm.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

An announcement to adapt SEO strategies for Google's systems with an image of a book titled "Google Ranking Systems & Signals 2024."

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SEJ STAFF Matt G. Southern Senior News Writer at Search Engine Journal

Matt G. Southern, Senior News Writer, has been with Search Engine Journal since 2013. With a bachelor’s degree in communications, ...