For Whom the SEO Bells Toll

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 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 Pappa’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?

Concern was noted for:
“• 7 adverbs used. Aim for 4 or fewer.
• 4 out of 23 sentences were hard to read.
• 1 sentence was very hard to read.”

Strengths included:
“•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. I would hate to see appropriate 3+-syllable words, intricate paragraphs, and complex/compound sentences stripped from the internet. I would also hate to see 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 don’t tend to use subheadings in my blog posts. It gave me one big, negative, 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….

‘Subheading’

Ta Da!! Due to that stray, frivolous subtitle, Yoast just gave me my sixth green circle…and a ‘perfect’ readability score!

How does your writing rate? You can check it out here, here and here! What are your thoughts on all of this? All comments are appreciated.


Title photo made at Canva.com

Humane Communities

On Tuesday afternoons, my husband and I walk dogs at our local SPCA. Due to the SPCA’s long-standing efforts on spaying and neutering programs, as well as our community’s responsible dog ownership, there are often no dogs for us to walk. This is a very good problem to have!

Earlier this week, we attended a reception for SPCA volunteers. The guest speaker was Geoff Urton from our Regional SPCA Office. His topic was ‘Humane Communities.’ The broad goal of Humane Communities is to nurture empathy and compassion for both people and animals in community members of all ages. Often the word ‘people’ is left out of the above definition which is ironic as humanity lies at the center of this body of work and is key to its success. If we do not have understanding and compassion for humanity, how can we genuinely have empathy for other members of the animal kingdom? Renowned for their passionate work for animals, the SPCA has also adopted such people-centered programs as ‘Not Myself Today.’ This initiative aims to reduce the stigma of mental heath and foster safe and supportive environments. It is programs like these that help make the SPCA an incredibly well-rounded organization.

Being a long-time believer in the importance of animal welfare, I was excited to hear what our speaker had to say about the topic at hand. While the BC SPCA has been taking a number of steps to ensure Humane Communities (progressive animal control bylaws, farm certification, low-cost microchip programs, grant funding, wildlife preservation programs, animal shelter and services, etc., etc.), this was not the focus of Geoff’s address. Instead, he turned the microphone over to those of us sitting in the audience.

Many of us, including me, shifted uncomfortably. It became clear that the keynote’s message was that it is YOU and ME, not our local animal shelters or SPCA, who create and sustain Humane Communities. While government, animal organizations, law enforcement, veterinarians, schools, etc. all play a key role, the ultimate responsibility is for the citizens of communities to envision, aspire, speak up and create a better, more humane world.

Through his collaborative presentation, our speaker left us with two challenges. What kind of world do you want to live in? And, how are you going to make this happen? His first question was the easy part. The hard part is having the courage and the confidence to know that I can make a difference…and the gumption to jump in and make a start. For me, what is needed is the resolution to make the transition from a ‘long-time believer’ to a ‘passionate and committed’ one.

What about you? What is your vision of a Humane Community? What is one small thing that you could do that would help bring your surrounding environment closer to that vision?

You can read more about Human Communities here and here.

Blogging Frustrations

You know when you work and you can easily pop next door and have Madeleine or Muhammad (or their counterparts) help with your tech related problems? I so miss that– especially when running a blog!

An ongoing area of blogging frustration for me has been finding the best way to let readers know when I have replied to their comments. Since this comment notification feature is standard in the free version of WordPress, this should be easy to add to a (not so free) self-hosted WordPress site, right? Wrong! Very wrong!

Being a risk-taker, I tried a popular comment plug-in called ‘Discuz.’ Perhaps it was just my site (or my set up?), but for me, Discuz included an overly active captcha. This meant many readers could not comment on my posts at all. That kinda was the opposite of what I was going for!

Being nothing if not tenacious, I tried again.

A few bloggers that I follow have been using CommentLuv. With this plugin, readers can leave a link to their most recent post. What was not to love? Well…a few things actually. Although readers could leave a link, the free version of this plugin has not been updated in WordPress for almost a year. And although I am sure I read a review otherwise, readers still were not notified when I replied to their comments.

Ahhhhhh!

I tried additional comment plugins. On some, readers wrote to say that they could no longer see where to comment on my site. (I am very thankful when readers take the time to let me know these things.) Other comment plugins, which seemed simple enough, had a confusing ‘must subscribe’ email checkbox. That would definitely prevent me from commenting if I saw this on a blog.

I tried writing on help forums. Nada. I tried asking other bloggers what they used. (I discovered that I have many blogging friends who either do not use WordPress or use the free version with that wonderful comment notification feature already included…lucky them!) In the meantime, I received numerous comment-related emails from readers (thank you again!). Some said they still could not find the comment section on my site. Some said that they assumed I was not replying to their comments (I honestly was)! Others asked what the heck had happened to CommentLuv (turns out that many readers did like that feature)!

Insert Me: Banging head on desk.
Insert Richard: “Why don’t you just do things the easy way, and switch to the free WordPress version?” (Seriously, has he met me before?)

Rarely doing things the easy way, I researched. I looked at some great blogging sites (like this and this). I kept on trying.

So where did I end up? For now, I have installed “Comment Approved Notifier,” which automatically sends an email to individual readers once their comment has been approved. Since I always reply to comments at the same time as approving them, this will be my sign to readers that I have replied to their comments. And, since this plugin plays nicely with others, I have also re-added CommentLuv.

Please, let me know what you think. Does this solution work from your end? Or is there a better alternative that I should be trying?

And what about you? What are your blog-related frustrations (as either a reader or writer of blogs)? Perhaps we can help each other (or better still, perhaps there are ‘tech experts’ reading this blog right now who are willing to help us.

Alone in the Classroom…and the Love of Words

The above quote is spoken by the narrator of Alone in the Classroom as she pieces together fragments of her ancestry in search of self-acceptance. Although this novel has arguable flaws in plot and structure, this quote gives us a taste of Hay’s distinctive style, evocative descriptions and provocative messaging. From the woody smells of childhood to the villainous school principal who “moved through the school like mustard gas,” Hay’s artful prose invigorated every fiber of my being. I was reminded once again about my on-going love affair with words, and their intoxicating magic.

According to researchers at Washington State University, a single word has the power to “inform, persuade, hurt, ease pain…get your point across, or destroy any hope of your ideas ever being understood.” In the fatal example of the Japanese use of the word “mokusatsu” at the end of WWll, one word can trigger unspeakable horrors. (Read more.)

Multiple researchers have supported the claim that reading great literature improves us as human beings. Studies, both with adults and with children, have indicated that “individuals who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” As an interesting aside, no similar effect was noted when participants watched television. (You can read more here.)

As Hay continued to lure me with her skillful prose, BAM! I was transported back to the long, hot, restless summers of my own childhood.

“Newspapers of old smelled damp, inky, pungent. We would lie on the floor when we were kids, our noses inches above the paper, and devour the comic strips that were so glamorous in those days, the women and the men bewitching, all chiselled cheekbones and thick hair, full lips and swelling breasts. The damp wonder of romance, and the excitement of the world out there awaiting us – it was all transmitted directly into our noses through newsprint and ink.”

and

“Roads were narrower…more shaded. Cars less common and slower. Summer feet were bare and tough, or shod in old leather. Faces were careless of the sun. Noses burned, and children aided the peeling by picking the skin loose and giving it a fascinated tug. As many peelings per summer as there were pips in a winter grapefruit.”

What about you? What is your relationship with words? Is there a recent, or favorite passage, that has transported you in time? Please share!

And while we’re sharing a love of words, a new children’s book in the Piper Morgan series is being released on April 4. This series is written by Tennessee author and blogger, Stephanie Faris. You can check out more details here. This is a non-sponsored recommendation.

Featured image created by Canva.
Feature quote from Alone in the Classroom, Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Hay. Publisher: Emblem Editions.

Wordless Wednesday: How I Spent My Florida Vacation

For this week’s post, I’ve decided to try out #WordlessWednesday and tell the story of our recent Florida home exchange as wordlessly as possible. Photo captions seriously don’t count, right?!
Enjoy!!

Our trip began in Orlando where we had a serendipitous catch-up with two life-long friends (and two brand new ones). Loved it!!
Then it was off to our home exchange in Cocoa Beach. We were thrilled with this amazing find and our very generous hosts!
Most mornings began with us paddling on a lagoon that jutted against our exchange property.
Okay, before Richard jumps into the comment section…I confess! It was Richard who paddle boarded, kayaked and canoed each morning…while I, in firmly strapped life-jacket, held on tight to the side of the canoe. (Hey, you can never be too sure what’s swimming underneath!)
Much of our time was spent on the beach. We lounged, read, slept, walked, rode, swam, ate, drank and played there. (The featured sandcastle was not made by us…ours was not photo-worthy!)
Even when not on the beach, we tried to have as much outdoor time as possible. This included picnics in parks and on the dock!
At Kennedy Space Centre, I watched my husband relive his childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut. We missed the launch of Delta IV Rocket by just one day…. aarrghh!
We even wandered into an Open House…purely for fun. (It never hurts to dream!) This was the backyard view.
We saw alligators (from afar) and glimpses of jumping dolphins and manatees. Sadly, as my iPhone is the only camera that I had with me, the best shot that I can show you is of these common beach terns. (My husband and I called them “Kramer Birds” due to their spiked caps, prominent beaks and… a look that inexplicably made us smile!)
Our Home Exchange Hosts asked us which Cocoa Beach experience we liked best. It was hard to choose, but bike riding along Florida’s expansive beaches was hard to beat!
One for each Book Club!!
And I read two novels…
We are now at the Orlando Airport awaiting our return trip home. While the scenery on Vancouver Island is also spectacular…we are bracing ourselves for the snow, rain, slush and COLD!

But, in compensation…Richard and I just received a complimentary $400USD flight coupon (each!) for giving up our seats on this flight, and taking a different one (35 minutes later). A great trip all-around!

How to Plan An Affordable, Last Minute Winter Escape

Last week, my husband and I were sitting at our home in Vancouver Island complaining about the unusually long, cold and snowy winter. We had no travel plans until summer. One week later, I am eating a banana that I picked from a backyard tree while my husband soaks in the outdoor pool, reading the paper and enjoying the sun’s warm rays. Steps away in the lagoon, we both catch the sight of a dolphin jumping.

What transported us so instantly to such a completely different (and luxurious) environment? It started with my husband wondering aloud: “How quickly can we get out of here to some place warm that won’t break the bank?” In short, the answer to his question was ‘very quickly…with free accommodation, rental car on points and a super cheap flight to boot!’

I’ve mentioned previously about our frequent travels with home exchange. But we had never tried last minute home exchange before now. I was astonished at how swiftly and easily it worked.

It really was just a matter of logging into our home exchange website, clicking on the last minute travel tab and browsing through the houses on offer that seemed to suit our interests. (There are also tabs for retirees, teachers, pet owners, second homes, etc.) Normally, I would write to several potential exchanges at one time, but in this case, a particular place caught my eye: “Waterfront pool home – walk to beach, dolphins in backyard. Available February 25 – March 4”. It sounded perfect! And it was in Cocoa Beach…weren’t Major Nelson and Jeannie from there? I sent a quick note saying that we would be interested in staying that week. Within minutes (literally) I received a positive and welcoming reply.

The other key piece that made this home exchange arrangement go so smoothly is that I didn’t need to worry about whether our potential exchange partners were interested in coming to Vancouver Island. HomeExchange.com now offers a ‘passport program’ where you receive a ‘virtual balloon’ every time you renew your annual membership…and every time you host an exchange partner in your home and do not stay in theirs. From renewing my membership, I had a balloon to spare. Our Cocoa Beach partners were happy to provide a week-long stay in their luxury home in exchange for one balloon.

I miraculously found a cheap, no frills flight –$250USD return, including all taxes and fees. (We then received a free upgrade to comfort class!). I confirmed our exchange and began packing.

When discussing home exchange, I’m frequently asked how I am comfortable dealing so intimately with strangers. The answer is to take the time that you need to communicate well with your potential exchange partner(s), just like you would with a babysitter or anyone else coming into your home. Ask all of the questions you have and trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, or if you are unable to negotiate terms that you are completely comfortable with, find a different exchange. In this case, we felt instantly at ease with our hosts, Wendy and Ted. In addition, the reviews from their other exchange guests were first-rate and provided further helpful details.

When we arrived at Wendy and Ted’s home, we felt that we were being greeted by long-time friends. They had even cooked dinner for us (that truly does not happen every time), and they took us out on the paddle boards to give us a tour of the lagoon and canals.

We found their home to be equipped with everything that we could possibly want for a relaxing, luxurious vacation (waterfront location, heated pool, paddle board, kayaks, canoe, pool table, bikes, fully-equipped kitchen, barbecue….).

While being here, our only difficulty has been in choosing what we want to do each day. The options have been endless. In my next post, I will share the highlights of this Florida escape. In the meantime, if you have any questions about home exchange, I’d be happy to answer what I can.