Does the Use of Active vs Passive Voice Affect SEO?
The passive and active voice are both ways of phrasing a sentence that includes a subject, object, and verb.
Both active and passive voice have their place in writing, but the active voice is more direct, impactful, and rhythmic with a stronger narrative flow.
The vast majority of advertising and marketing copy exclusively targets the active voice for these reasons.
Take these marketing slogans:
- Nike: Just do it – active
- Nike: Make sure it gets done – passive
- McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it – active
- McDonald’s: It’s loved by me – passive
Clearly, the active form of these short phrases is more impactful. The passive formation has identical meaning but throws in unnecessary words that clouds the phrase’s impact.
But how does this fit in with SEO?
Language and Google
Google’s algorithm has understood natural language to some extent for nearly a decade, but natural language processing – or NLP – has become much more advanced in recent years.
With BERT, SEOs can assume that Google is very competent at analyzing most elements of natural language.
So, granted the knowledge that Google understands the language very well, could this be an SEO ranking factor?
Language and SEO: A Complex Relationship
Language is something we often take for granted, but it’s hugely complex and thus, SEO and language have a complicated relationship.
There are numerous ways to construct sentences with near-identical meaning. This is why building NLP algorithms is so difficult.
Consider the following sentence:
“I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.”
It’s a seemingly simple sentence, but there are many different potential meanings here:
- I was on a hill when I saw a man with a telescope
- I’m watching a man on a hill with my telescope
- The man on the hill has the telescope
- There’s both a man and a telescope on the hill
For SEO purposes, Google has to try and unpack the meaning of these sentences to properly rank the phrase.
Since the phrase is so ambiguous, it will have to use the surrounding context of the phrase to understand what the passage is really about. This is consequential for SEO purposes.
SEO, as we may know, is about making Google’s life easier – writing is a big part of that.
Writing unambiguous text is potentially important for SEO as it helps algorithms understand the meaning of the text, e.g. that this blog post is about my sighting of a man on a hill using my telescope and not my sighting of a hill with a man and telescope on it.
Writing content that is clear, articulate, and error-free may directly or indirectly impact SEO performance.
What Google Has to Say
Google Webmaster guidelines reference the quality of written content in several places:
Google states: “Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.”
Google states: “Avoid writing sloppy text with many spelling and grammatical mistakes.”
Google states: “Creating high-quality content takes a significant amount of at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill. Content should be factually accurate, clearly written, and comprehensive.”
Even back in 2011, SearchEngineLand found that content littered with spelling and grammar issues often ranked lower than accurately written pieces.
If there are two similar pieces competing for a hotly contested space in the SERPs, the better-written piece might just edge it.
However, Google has also said that they do not actively penalize sites with poorly written content so long as it doesn’t impact user experience.
As ever in SEO, the waters here are pretty murky. But, it’s still safest to assume that you need to produce excellent, clear, and error-free copy
- For your users
- For Google
And that’s why you need to think about passive vs active voice.
Passive vs Active Voice
If you’ve produced web copy with writing tools such as Yoast SEO, you’ll likely have come across the passive and active voice already. You can use the Hemingway editor to quickly check content for passive voice.
Simply defined, in an active voice sentence, the subject acts on the verb.
The subject in a passive voice sentence is a recipient of the verb’s action.
Here are a few examples:
Active: The team laid the road quickly.
Passive: The road was quickly laid by the team.
Active: I will clean the house on Monday.
Passive: The house will be cleaned by me on Monday.
Active: The writer created the article.
Passive: The article was created by the writer.
In some of these examples, you could strip away the ‘by me’:
Active: I will always remember my first trip to London
Passive: My first trip to London will always be remembered by me
Passive 2: My first trip to London will always be remembered
The last example here is ambiguous – it doesn’t specify that you are remembering that trip and not someone else.
When Passive Voice is Preferable
Overuse of passive voice does impact the readability of a passage, but it can sometimes be unavoidable.
If you’re reflecting on a process or events that occurred in the past tense then you’ll probably rack up more uses of the passive voice than if you’re writing about something that is happening right now.
Active voice is also easier to use when describing something that happens on an ongoing basis, e.g:
Active: Global warming caused a 3% rise in sea level in 2015.
Passive: A 3% rise in sea level was caused by global warming in 2015.
Here, the passive version of the sentence is clearly inferior. It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, it just throws in an extra couple of words that affect its readability.
However, sometimes, you’ll need to use passive voice to emphasize the correct part of a sentence:
Here’s an example of when passive voice best communicates the meaning of a sentence:
Active: An elephant injured grandad
Passive: Grandad got injured by an elephant
The second sentence, phrased using passive voice, describes the incident more clearly than the first.
The first focuses more on the elephant, whereas the second focuses more on the grandad.
Here’s another example:
Active: The burglar attacked an elderly couple at 8 pm
Passive: The elderly couple was attacked by a burglar at 8 pm
The passive version of the phrase emphasizes the elderly couple. If you’re reporting on this incident, e.g. in a newspaper, then it’d be more sensical to use the passive voice.
Passive vs Active Voice: The Verdict
Overuse of the passive voice is likely inconsequential for SEO unless it clouds the meaning of a passage or otherwise affects its readability.
But, there’s a thin line here, because losing readers due to ambiguous writing will affect SEO.
Away from optimization, the active voice can encourage action which may yield higher conversion rates, engagement, and enhanced shareability of content.
For marketing, promotional content, and advertising, a strong command of the active voice is essential.
The active voice is also encouraged in scientific writing, medical writing, healthcare, therapy, and self-help.
It’s also worth mentioning that passive voice is by no means the only factor that can affect the readability of written text. Proper spelling, grammar, and formatting are all UX factors that Google understands.
The subject, message, and tone of a passage should also be well-aligned with the subject.
Whilst a post encouraging users to try or buy a product should be packed full of short, snappy, and motivational content, a reflective post on sensitive emotional themes ought to evoke a slower overall pace.
There are all potential ranking factors if they affect UX, so think carefully about written content and the role of passive and active voice.