This past week, I finally pulled the plug on Yoast. Although, to be fair, it has forced me to be disciplined about sentence length and overall flow, I felt constrained by writing to rules dictated by an app. A blog, especially a self-hosted one, is a free space that you own where you can express your views uninhibitedly. Therefore, the fact that I was forcing my writing style into a format dictated by an app – not even a person – was eating into me. So on February 26th, I finally did what I’d been itching to do for months – I disabled my Yoast plugin.
What is Yoast?
Yoast is an SEO plugin which is supposed to help you optimize your page for better visibility on search engines. While the base version is free, as with many apps and plugins these days, there’s a premium paid version with more features. With Yoast, you get guidance on two aspects of your writing – readability, and SEO optimization.
How does Yoast test readability?
When you have Yoast enabled, it constantly assesses your text as you write. The readability feature measures your text against the Flesch Reading Ease scale, which measures the sentence length and number of syllables in a word. A higher score means that your text is more readable – if you score 90 to 100 (the highest band), your text is easy to read, i.e. the average Primary 5 student (10-11 years old) should have no trouble with it.
Yoast removes points when your Flesch Reading Ease score drops below 60, which is supposed to be the reading level of a Secondary 3 (14-15 year old) student. In theory, that’s a great concept; but when a computer assesses readability using word and sentence length, it can get unnatural. You’re forced to break up sentences and thoughts, which makes your flow choppy and abrupt.
Also, Yoast insists that you must use active voice for more than 90% of your sentences. You will move from a green to an orange dot if 10-15% of your sentences are in passive voice, and anything over 15% gets a red dot. Even with general storytelling content, that’s difficult (anything that “is” becomes passive voice), but how about technical writing? It gets even less natural.
Finally, you need to start at least 30% of your sentences with transition words. This is perhaps the most restrictive of all the rules. With Yoast, I ended up writing with several tabs of college grammar web pages in my browser to find more ideas for transition words, in order to make up the quota. Most of those efforts ended up with lots of trial and error because Yoast has to recognize the transition word.
How does Yoast measure SEO?
SEO is important when you want your blog to show up on page 1 of a Google search. Google determines what content is relevant to a given search keyword using an algorithm, and Yoast’s goal is to help you plan your content to suit that algo. You start by entering the keyword or keyphrase – the words you think your readers will type into Google to get to content like yours – and Yoast will give you a score to tell you how relevant your content is to that keyphrase.
Of course, we are talking about algorithms here, so you need to think like a computer and not a human. That means there is no room for synonyms and implicit meanings – Yoast simply counts the number of times your keyword appears in your text and headings. Too few, and you’re not going to show up because a computer doesn’t think your article is relevant enough. Too many, and you’re over-optimizing. In practice, of course, you’re likely to go with too few rather than too many, because humans want variety in their writing and will recoil from anything too repetitive.
Goodbye Yoast… for now.
Well, I stuck with Yoast for around 3 months of blogging. During that time, I diligently plugged away at re-writing and re-phrasing every sentence and paragraph to get the right number of keywords, the right sentence length, and all the transition words down pat. In the end, it wasn’t me writing, it was the app. You have to hand it to Yoast for devising an ingenious feedback mechanism with the green-orange-red indicator system; people will do anything to get a green dot, and try to avoid a red dot at all costs. So even though you could ignore the app and write whatever you want, the visual feedback keeps coming back in your face, in a way that is not easy to ignore.
At some point, I probably will need to go back to Yoast if I want to monetize my content by hosting display ads. That would be the time when search engine ranking is paramount, so that not only my friends and network will discover my content, but also anyone else searching the web. However, at this moment I am on shared hosting, with a server in Singapore – which means that page loading speed will kill my SEO ambitions even if all my writing is Yoast-perfect.
Rage against the machine… or capitulate?
Everybody creating content of any form has to deal with these types of dilemmas – be yourself, or optimize for eyeballs? With machine learning playing such a strong role in the content we see on the Internet and social media – something either picks up traffic and takes off, or it sinks into oblivion like a stone – our choices are limited if we want a big following or to make money out of our writing and content. And most of us do not have a choice because of the many people out there producing content, only the rare few will be able to get viral momentum. Therefore, let me stay tiny – and happy – in my own free-expression world.