What is ‘SEO’ and what is it doing to our writing?
If you share your written work on-line (and care about anyone else ever reading it) you are probably quite familiar with the term SEO or ‘Search Engine Optimization.’ SEO ranks your posts based on what search engines consider most relevant to internet users.
More and more, as on-line writers, we are encouraged to improve our SEO scores. Cyberspace is now teaming with advice, apps and plugins to do just that. But what are the consequences to the uniqueness of our voices, and the depth and purity of our words? Is all of this ‘search engine hype’ helping or hurting our writing?
Going hand in hand with checking the SEO friendliness of your post, such plugins as ‘Yoast SEO’ analyze the ‘readability’ of what you have to say. This is done by checking the length of your sentences and paragraphs. It is noted whether you’ve used transition words or subheadings and how often you’ve used a passive voice. On top of all this, Yoast calculates a ‘Flesch Reading Ease’ score. To obtain the highest possible Flesch score, you must limit yourself to short sentences and use only one or two syllable words. Also, your writing must be easily understood by the average 11-year old. (Yoast)
And Yoast is not the only plugin or app out to change our writing. The Hemmingway App claims to keep your writing ‘bold and clear’ (and thus SEO friendly). And Grammarly, although not specifically SEO-centered, sets out to “improve” your spelling, grammar, sentence structure and word choice…all of which the creators claim will also optimize search engine results for your post. (Source)
Overwhelmed but curious, I decided to try out all three apps/plugins. As they each have ‘free versions,’ what did I have to lose? Oh, and I need to mention, I tried them out not only on my writing but also on the Big Papa’s. I was most interested in reading Hemmingway’s (the app’s) critique of Hemmingway (the writer). As many of us studied For Whom the Bells Toll in high school English class, I used the first page (346 words) of that novel. You remember:
“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay….”(you can read more here).
So how did Hemmingway, the author, do? That was interesting!
On Grammarly, he scored 79/100. Come on, Ernest, in most University grading systems, that’s only a C+! Points were deducted for:
“• Squinting modifier in second sentence, “The mountainside sloped gently.”
• Repetitive word ‘road” in opening paragraph.
• Overused word ‘solid.’
• Missing commas (on two separate occasions) before the coordinating conjunction and in a compound sentence.
• Unusual word pairs.
• Suggested to replace the word ‘pass.’
• Repetitive word ‘post.’
• Wordiness in one sentence.”
• (Also, Grammarly didn’t recognize the word ‘photostated.’)
On Yoast, Ernest received three ‘bad SEO’ ratings, one ‘okay’ and two ‘goods.’ Below are Yoast’s exact comments:
“• Bad SEO score: The text does not contain any subheadings. Add at least one subheading.
• Bad SEO score: 1 of the paragraphs contains more than the recommended maximum of 150 words. Are you sure all information is about the same topic and therefore belongs in one single paragraph?
• Bad SEO score: 11.5% of the sentences contain a transition word or phrase, which is less than the recommended minimum of 30%.
• OK SEO score: 11.5% of the sentences contain passive voice, which is more than the recommended maximum of 10%. Try to use their active counterparts.
• Good SEO score: The copy scores 87.4 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered easy to read.
• Good SEO score: 24% of the sentences contain more than 20 words, which is less than or equal to the recommended maximum of 25%.”
And finally, how did Hemmingway, the app, score Hemmingway the writer?
“• 7 adverbs used. Aim for 4 or fewer.
• 4 out of 23 sentences were hard to read.
• 1 sentence was very hard to read.”
“•Grade 6 Reading Level (good).
• Met the goal of 5 or fewer uses of the passive voice.
• 0 suggestions to use simpler sentences.”
My takeaway was that each of these plugins/apps do have their place. They can offer useful insights and provide much convenience. The caution is that they MUST be used as ‘suggested guidelines’ and not completely replace human proofreading. Surpassing all search engine mathematics, writers need to remain true to their own voices. It would be a travesty to have emerging Hemmingways restrained by fear of the SEO police.
Oh, and what were my SEO scores for this post?
Grammarly assigned me a score of 93% (woo hoo… A- !)
The Hemmingway app rated my writing at a “Grade 7 Readability Level” (‘good’). This app liked my conservative use of both adverbs and a passive voice. It did, however, suggest that I use “simpler phrases” (e.g. recommended I use the word “greatest” instead of “maximum” (….which, as you can read above, would not make sense). This app also suggested that I make some of my sentences easier to read.
The Yoast plugin is never going to like me because I seldom use subheadings in my blog posts. It gave me a big red circle for that! It also wanted me to use more transition words and gave me a cautionary orange circle for that. (Hey, what if I randomly inserted meaningless transition words into this post? Moreover. Likewise. Additionally. Similarly. Amazing, that worked! Goodbye orange circle!) The good news is that I did receive four positive green circles (for my short sentences, short paragraphs, restrained use of the passive voice and good Flesch reading score). I also snagged an additional green circle for cheating on my trasition words. And wait for it….
Ta Da!! Due to that stray, frivolous subtitle, Yoast just gave me my sixth green circle…and a ‘perfect’ readability score!
Title photo made at Canva.com