Eliminate Passive Voice to Improve Readability and SEO with the Yoast WordPress Plugin

Ryan Norman | | , , ,
Does Passive Voice Affect SEO? Get Rid Of Yoast Readability Problems

This blog post was written to demonstrate the value of writing in the active voice. (Your passive voice sensor should be tingling). So what do you think, does passive voice affect SEO?

Limiting instances of passive voice in your writing makes your content more forceful and can even improve that content’s search engine rankings. 

The Problem with Passive Voice

The 2008 Oscar for Best Actor was won. 

That’s passive voice for ya. It can leave you wanting a little something more. (A milkshake perhaps.) In this extreme form, passive voice eschews the most important information in the sentence. The actor! 

Daniel-Day Lewis won the 2008 Oscar for Best Actor. 

Yoast’s Content Analysis for SEO and Readability

I wrote this blog post to demonstrate the value of writing in the active voice. (Doesn’t that sound more natural and direct?) And, specifically, to demonstrate how limiting passive voice can improve SEO and readability scores in the Yoast SEO WordPress Plugin. 

I’m talking about this panel: 

Yoast SEO readability tab in WordPress. Passive voice score is 12.3%.

It comes complete with happy- and sad-face warnings . . . 

Readability tab in Yoast SEO WordPress plugin

. . . and this vexing alert about passive voice.  

In total, Yoast evaluates 7 aspects of writing:

  • Consecutive sentences
  • Flesch reading ease
  • Paragraph length
  • Passive voice
  • Sentence length
  • Subheading distribution
  • Transition words

You may be thinking, “That’s great and all that Yoast can tell you all that, but I’m not Shakespeare. Nor does my content need to be Hamlet-level prose. I need to write an informative, compelling copy for my company and clients. I’m under the gun as it is, so unless the extra effort to excise passive constructions is really going to help me, what’s the point?”

Limiting Passive Voice Improves SEO Rankings

Engineers are working continuously to get search algorithms to read a text more like the way people do. Gone are the days when you could just sprinkle keyword phrases into every nook and cranny of your site. The big players—like Google—want to serve users content that they will actually read. That means writing in complete, comprehensible sentences on your site. 

Marieke van de Rakt—Ph.D. in Social Sciences and CEO of Yoast—put it this way: “All the things humans do while reading text are things Google will do. That means that the structure of your text, the way you write your paragraphs, will become increasingly important.”

So if your website is littered with tortured syntax and unidiomatic phrasing, it is falling short of its SEO potential. Yes, you must cover all your technical SEO bases to succeed as well. But don’t let poor readability negate all that hard work. Especially when passive voice is easy to correct—once you get your ear in for it.     

What Passive Voice Is

Sentences exhibit passive voice when they don’t express their main idea directly. 

Let’s flesh out this definition with help from style and usage giants. 

The Elements of Style

Strunk and White—in their seminal, slim volume on writing—extol us to “Use the active voice.” It’s one of their elementary principles of composition. 

The Elements of Style by Wiliam Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Longman: New York. 2000.

Here is their explanation:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive: 

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston. 

This is much better than

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me. 

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered, 

it becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some undisclosed person or the world at large that will always remember this visit?

I was lucky enough to have been advised to pick up this book in high school. I’ve never constructed a sentence the same way since. 

Strunk and White’s pithy explanation is characteristic of their ethos toward writing in general: writing should get right to the point, with every scrap of extraneous information trimmed away. 

Garner’s Modern American Usage

Bryan Garner takes up a different task in his encyclopedia usage dictionary. He chronicles common and rare corners of language in use, with entries on phrasal adjectives, less vs. fewer, and retronyms (just to whet your appetite). 

Passive voice is covered by him as well. ( ; 

Garner says that the core issue with passive voice is that “the subject of the clause doesn’t perform the action of the verb.” 

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Oxford University Press: New York. 2003.

Garner’s 3 Problems of Passive Voice

He lays out three sticking points with using passive voice:

First, passive voice usually adds a couple of unnecessary words. 

Second, when it doesn’t add those extra words, it fails to say squarely who has done what. That is, the sentence won’t mention the actor with a by-phrase (The book was written vs. The book was written by Asimov).

Third, the passive subverts the normal word order for an English sentence [actor-verb-object], making it harder for readers to process the information. 

How To Correct Passive Voice

Here are common pitfalls of passive voice. And how to correct them. 

Passive Voice Can Displace the Proper Subject of a Sentence

Don’t write:
The screenplay for There Will Be Blood was written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 

Instead:
Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the screenplay for There Will Be Blood.

Passive Voice Can Be Used To Avoid Accountability 

Don’t write:
Eli Sunday’s head was bashed in by a bowling pin.

Instead:
Daniel Plainview bashed in Eli Sunday’s head with a bowling pin. 

Passive Voice Can Lead to Strange Syntax

Don’t write:
That oil was discovered by Daniel Plainview is how the film starts.

Instead:
The film starts with Daniel Plainview discovering oil.  

What Passive Voice Isn’t

Passive Voice Is Not Merely the Presence of Be-Verbs

Some people erroneously call any instance of a be-verb (am, are, is, was, were, been, and being) passive voice. Strictly speaking, that’s incorrect. However, when a be-verb is present, there is usually a stronger construction lurking nearby. 

Don’t write:
He is supportive of his mother.

Instead:
He supports his mother.

Don’t write:
She is in possession of a biting wit. 

Instead:
She possesses a biting wit.

Don’t write:
The rings of a tree are indicative of its age.

Instead:
The rings of a tree indicate its age.

Passive Voice Is Useful When the Actor Is Unknown or Unimportant

Passive voice should not be avoided like the plague; it should be used in moderation. A dash here and there gives a pleasant variety to your sentence structure. 

Beowulf was written around the end of the 10th Century. 

The passive voice is fine here—necessary, in fact. The author of the Old English epic poem is unknown. 

The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. 

Here the passive voice is appropriately employed in a sentence where a process (the signing) is the subject, rather than a person (the signers). Putting this sentence in the active voice would be cumbersome, and it would change the focus of the thought. 

Representatives from the Thirteen Colonies signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. 

Now, the representatives, or the fact that they were from the Thirteen Colonies, is given more weight than the signing itself. 

Yoast’s Passive Voice Analysis Is Not Perfect

Yoast doesn’t always classify passive voice correctly. At the end of the day, our machines still aren’t as astute as human readers at sussing out the nuances of language. 

Remember the orange warming light we saw above for 12.3% of sentences containing passive voice:

Passive voice SEO alert in Yoast

That’s an analysis of a post from our digital marketing blog called How To Crush Your Uniminified JavaScript and CSS Warnings. Jonathan Bentz, Senior Digital Marketing Strategist, shows you how to increase site speed and improve user experience by minifying your code. 

Let’s take a look at what Yoast said was passive voice in that post. 

Yoast SEO plugin said this was passive voice

Click the eyecon (I couldn’t resist) to have Yoast highlight where it thinks there are problems. 

Passive Voice Analysis: Yoast vs. Human 

15 Flags for Passive Voice

Yoast flagged 15 sentences for passive voice. 

Yoast SEO Passive Voice Warning

1 Textbook Case of Passive Voice

Only 1 of those 15 is a textbook case of passive voice to me. 

This sentence could be recast to put it in the active voice like this: 

Depending on your budget and level of technical expertise, you can configure both of our recommended plugins to produce great results for your site. 

13 Sentences with Be-Verbs and/or Subordinate Starts

Most of the other sentences either:

  • Contain be-verbs (am, are, is, was, were, been, and being)
  • Begin with dependent clauses (phrases that do not contain their own subject, verb, and predicate)

1 I-Don’t-Know-What-Yoast-Was-Mad-About Sentence 

I don’t know what Yoast is on about here. Perhaps it wants “I’ve got to get” to be changed to “I must get”? But “I’ve got to get” is perfectly grammatical and idiomatic speech; you’d seem oddly prim saying “I must get” in this situation.  

Yoast Defines Passive Voice Broadly

I couldn’t find a precise explanation from Yoast of what exactly their passive voice assessment is doing when it flags something for passive voice. However, a Yoast page that attempts to define passive voice applies the term to sentences where the action and/or recipient comes before the actor. 

Active Voice Syntax

[actor-action-recipient]
Sarah threw the ball.

Passive Voice Syntax

[recipient-action-actor]
The ball was thrown by Sarah. 

[action-recipient-actor]
Thrown was the ball by Sarah.

With this understanding in mind, I can kind of see where Yoast is coming from labeling sentences that begin with dependent clauses as passive voice. 

Such sentences do present a subordinate idea before the main idea, but that’s pretty far afield from how every authority I’ve ever seen defines passive voice.

Especially when starting sentences with independent clauses is perfectly grammatical and an essential way to vary your sentence structure. 

The Machines Haven’t Won, Yet

Take Yoast’s Passive Voice Flags with a Grain of Salt

Spelling and grammar checkers have come a long way. But you shouldn’t yet cede all control to them. (I’ll still looking for a program that can make sure I don’t leave a letter out of public.) 

Yoast’s Passive Voice Assessment Casts a Wide Net

In our sample—How To Crush Your Uniminified JavaScript and CSS Warnings—Yoast flagged far more sentences that contain be-verbs or that begin with dependent clauses than bonafide instances of passive voice. 

Now as I said, there is often merit in recasting sentences to eliminate be-verbs. And sure, you don’t want every sentence to start with a dependent clause. But the passive voice assessment didn’t really live up to its name here.

That being said, the overall point of this blog post still stands.

Limiting Passive Voice Improves SEO Rankings

The active voice makes your writing more readable to people and higher-ranking to search engines. 

Yoast just isn’t the end-all, be-all tool for identifying and correcting passive voice. And that’s great news. You still have a job! Comb your copy for passive constructions and recast them in the active voice.

8 Tips To Improve Readability and SEO

  1. Write in the active voice
  2. Sentences written in the active voice are easier to understand
  3. Active constructions are usually shorter and stronger than passive constructions
  4. Start sentences with the actor, not the action or recipient 
  5. Replace be-verbs with their concise counterparts  
  6. Use dependent clauses to vary your sentence structure
  7. Passive voice is useful when the actor is unknown or unimportant 
  8. Don’t use the passive voice to shirk responsibility; be like Daniel

    Don’t say:

    Your milkshake is being drunk by me.

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