We’ve been using the Yoast SEO plugin for years, for our own websites and our clients’ sites, and we’ve seen plenty of updates. The new Yoast SEO plugin, however, is different enough that it needs a new tryout.
In case you’re not familiar with Yoast, here’s the basic info.
The Yoast SEO Plugin
Once you install the Yoast SEO plugin, each post page will have a form for you to fill out. You specify your chosen focus keyword — for this post, it’s “new yoast” — and the plugin will check your word count, meta description, alt text, and more, giving you an automatic gauge of your search engine optimization. In the screenshot below, you can see that at 0 words, this post had bad SEO.
We get green lights on SEO consistently with no special effort. We like to see the unbroken line of green dots on our All Posts page, and our clients find it reassuring.
But the new Yoast SEO plugin, in addition to some smaller updates, includes one enormous change: it grades your content as well as your SEO. When you update the plugin, you may see “bad content” notices all over the posts you’ve written in the past, even if they have green SEO scores. We did.
We had enough “bad content” notices that we were able to see right away what Yoast didn’t like about our content.
There are six factors:
- Subheadings — Yoast wants one for every 300 words.
- Sentence length — Yoast wants 20 words or less.
- Use of passive voice — “The goat was eaten by the tiger” vs. “The tiger ate the goat.” Yoast wants 10% or less.
- Flesch reading level — Yoast wants it close to 70.
- Paragraph length — Yoast wants 150 words or less.
- Use of transition words — Yoast wants 25% of your sentences to contain one.
The first thing we need to do is get past the disheartening effect of seeing that “bad content” mark. The plugin calculates scores from the six factors listed above, not from human judgements about the actual quality of your writing. We’re pretty sure that we could paste in a page from William Faulkner and get a “bad content” notice.
Josepha chatted with the Yoast team at WordCamp Euro and learned that a lot of people were miffed at finding their blogs suddenly covered with red “bad content” signs. This is why you will see “Readability” rather than “Content” when you use the newest update to the new Yoast plugin.
Our authors’ scores
Rebecca’s posts got “bad content” notices for no subheadings, long sentences, and the use of the passive voice.
Tom didn’t design our website with blog subheadings in mind. What’s more, research on the correlation of keyword-containing subheadings and search engine rankings suggests that they are not important for SEO. So we don’t use them much.
However, we’ve talked before about adding subheadings. It’s an easy fix.
Gideon’s “bad content” posts have the same flaws (from the Yoast plugin point of view) as mine. I taught freshman comp for decades, so I know the perils of long sentences and the passive voice. We’re talking to a more educated segment of the population here, and we’re not rambling, so I’m not worried about long sentences. I always told students not to use the passive voice unless they had a good reason to, and I’d say we use it only when we have a good reason.
However, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just rationalizing, so I asked Josepha to chat with the Yoast team about the passive voice factor in particular. Is there a reason that avoiding the passive voice is included? Is that based on data about the SEO value of the active voice? In a word, “No.”
The Yoast team designed their plugin for personal lifestyle bloggers, they explained. “You’re probably working with engineers,” they said after hearing some specific examples. “It’s not designed for engineers.”
Rosie’s posts don’t get “bad content” notices, but they do get “okay” notices. The reason she gets more “good” judgements from Yoast: she doesn’t use the passive voice as often as Gideon and I do. Yoast smacked her for lack of subheadings and occasionally for long sentences, but she’ll be getting “good content” every time if she takes up subheadings.
Our data at this point was pretty boring. The authors of this blog don’t use subheadings, and while our posts are not hard to read, they do have long sentences. We can easily mend our ways if we want to stop getting scolded by Yoast. Are all “bad content” posts like this? We decided to check out some of the posts at our site by other authors.
Guest blogger Craig Robinson had scoldings for long sentences and passive voice, his copy was a little hard to read, and even though he used subheadings, he didn’t use as many as Yoast wanted. So, even though his post looked more Yoast-approved than ours, he still missed their mark. Once again, we don’t mind longer sentences and correctly-used passive voice, but it was interesting to see that a very skimmable post with plenty of subheadings and bullets won’t necessarily get that green light.
A former contractor had the highest proportions of long sentences and passive voice sentences in the blog, plus an overlong paragraph and no subheadings. If you’re approaching these proportions, you might want to make some changes for readability, depending on your topics.
Tom Hapgood had no subheadings, and was just short of Yoast perfection on several other factors. If you’re getting results like these, it might be worth going back and making a few small changes, if only to get that “bad content” notice removed.
Does it matter?
Having dug into this blog’s posts pretty thoroughly, I went on to have a look at our clients’ blogs. Gideon’s posts for an outdoor sports gear company — green lights all around. He never has “bad content” there. Our blog for a medical group? All green on both readability and SEO. Both of these blogs are being written for a broad audience: people who like outdoor sports, people who need medical care sometimes. These are not specialized audiences.
Where did we find “bad content”? On the blogs for engineers, as the Yoast team predicted. On the blogs designed to appeal to researchers, scientists, and other specialized audiences. One of those blogs has had an increase in traffic of more than 800% over the last year. Is our use of the passive voice getting in the way of that website’s performance? Obviously not.
SEO plugins are not magic. It’s super easy to create truly bad content that will still get a green light. We think Yoast is helpful for reminding us of best practices and helping us keep our content readable, and the new readability notices could help with that. But we know our audiences.
You can easily turn off the readability part of the plugin if you don’t want to look at those red check marks. You can also make the changes Yoast suggests and see how it affects your results. We probably won’t go back and add subheadings to the thousands of posts we currently have on this website, but we will probably start using them going forward.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about the new Yoast plugin. Leave us a comment!