For search engine optimization, some problems could keep blogs from ranking higher with search engines. Should passive voice be one of them?
As I write a blog post, I rely on the Yoast plugin to help me protect my SEO. SEO, of course, stands for search engine optimization. It’s a fancy way of referring to the things bloggers do and don’t do so their blog ranks higher in results when someone uses a search engine. One of the things Yoast watches for is too many instances of passive voice.
I can hear some bloggers complaining already: ”I thought I was done with grammar school.”
Nope. Not according to Yoast and some SEO experts. Grammar plays an important part of the post equation, like it or not.
What’s the big deal about grammar? Well, it’s an indirect factor, but a critical one nonetheless. Writing better translates into an easier-to-read post. When readers encounter posts that are easier to read, they’re more likely to stay longer. They’re more likely to return to that source. More people are likely to to come to your site as it slowly rides its way toward the top of search results.
Those clever little search engines pay attention to posts that get lots of clicks and sites readers spend more time reading.
A poorly written grammatical mess might turn readers away faster, which could negatively impact your SEO.
But what’s the big deal about passive voice?
Sure, we use passive voice every day. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using it. But many grammatical experts insist we should use it sparingly.
Some of you might be quietly trying to remember your grade school English class. Allow me to step in and give you a quick refresher on passive voice.
There are two types of sentences: Active voice and passive voice.
In a nutshell, in sentences in active voice, the subject takes an action. In sentences in passive voice, an object is acted upon by the subject. Notice the reversal of order.
Here are a few examples:
- ACTIVE: John read the book from cover to cover.
- PASSIVE: The book was read from cover to cover by John.
Need another example?
- ACTIVE: City council voted to increase the sales tax by one percent.
- PASSIVE: The one percent sales tax increase was voted on by city council.
If you study the sentences, I hope you’ll realize that the active sentence reads faster and implies faster action. The passive sentences read slower and, honestly, sound a bit more dull. Passive sentences generally take more words to say the same thing. So while they may boost your word count, they do by slowing down the pacing of your writing.
But grammatically, shouldn’t it be up to the writer’s preference? I mean, why would passive writing affect a site’s SEO?
Yoast checks for passive voice in every post you write.
As you write when you use the Yoast plugin, there are two little dots that you can see in the upper right corner of the page. As you compose the post, you want to see those little dots go from red to green.
They always start off red when you have the proverbial blank page. Since you haven’t yet written anything, you haven’t met any writing or keyword goals. The more you write, you change the little dots from red to orange to yellow to (hopefully) green.
One dot measures SEO tactics while the other measures your post’s readability. It’s under that readability tab where you find the mention of passive voice. Yoast recommends that you use passive in no more than 10% of your post’s sentences. You may think that sounds restrictive. But once you see it flag too much passive voice in your posts, you can click a button that will highlight all of the passive sentences in your post. You can then rewrite any (or all) of them to move them to active voice.
As you can see from the examples above, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort. You just move the actor to the front of the sentence, ahead of the action the actor takes.
Why would Yoast care so much?
Here’s how it answers that question: “Passive voice makes your writing more distant, and your message less clear.”
Yoast claims eliminating passive voice (wherever you reasonably can) will help you convey a clear message.
“Don’t make your copy harder than it needs to be,” the Yoast website states. “If you want readers to remember your message, don’t tire their brains before they get there.”
The little indicator does give you a little leeway, at least. It stays green so long as you keep no more than 10% of your sentences passive. But it will go red if you go above 15%.
The obvious question goes unanswered.
There’s no clear answer to the question of how much passive voice will hurt your actual SEO performance. Will you actually leave the first page of search results — or the first few pages, for that matter — if more than 15% of your post is written in passive voice?
Yoast doesn’t tell us that. It turns out, there’s no easy way to determine a direct affect.
“It’s difficult to give a definite answer,” Semrush SEO Manager Sergei Rogulin says. “Passive and active voices are not directly a ranking factor, but the passive voice increases the complexity of texts, while active voice is better for text perception. It therefore improves readability.”
Rogulin then makes an important point: Readability isn’t only about how easily we mere mortals understand the content. It’s about how well Google does as well. Google can better interpret sites with higher readability.
If passive voice reduces readability, it can have some impact on your readability, and thereby, it can affect your SEO.
That’s why it’s better to write in active voice whenever you can. That way, you achieve a better chance of higher search rankings!