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….


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

55 Replies to “For Whom the SEO Bells Toll”

  1. Hi Donna,
    Thanks for the interesting post. Here’s my take:

    I tried Grammarly a while ago but it kept messing up my email provider (too many of those Mac beachballs of death) so I dumped it.

    I haven’t tried Hemingway yet. I use Yoast all of the time for my posts. I tend to write quite lengthy sentences and too often transgress with passive voice. Yoast has been helpful for these faux pas.

    I ignore readability score which, I’ve noticed, drops the second I use a couple of multi-syllable words. People tend to skim and scan when reading online. I use subheads and short paragraphs because they improve online readability.

    Putting Hemingway’s writing through Hemingway and Grammarly speaks to the fact that no app will ever be able to deal with writers with unique styles. Imagine the problem they’d have with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness writing!

    However, since Yoast is just for online writing, and Hemingway’s writing was never intended to be online, it’s not surprising that he didn’t score well there. It would be strange if he had!

    I’ll have to give Hemingway a try before I can speak to that. As far as Yoast goes, I make regular use of the app and would give it an A+ for writers tailoring their work to acknowledge the differences of the online reading experience.

    1. Hi, Karen – I greatly appreciate reading your point of view. Thank you for taking the time to share these details. I agree that each of the above apps definitely have their place. It it is certainly worth online writers trying them out and seeing what works for them. It is still interesting to me that Hemingway did not score well ion an app named after him.

  2. What happened to just writing? That’s what I prefer and will do on my blog. For our business website, SEO is very important, since we are selling a product and want to be ranked high by Google. Mark did a great job with that. There are different kinds of writings and some of the articles that are SEO heavy are “over the top” for me. They read easily, but not entertainingly. Not my things but there is a purpose to it. Playing around with it seems like a lot of fun, Donna!
    Liesbet recently posted…Weekend Adventures in the Area – Sonoma CountyMy Profile

    1. Hi, Liesbet – You make an important distinction between the significance of SEO use for businesses wanting high Google rankings, and the joy and beauty of writing for writing’s sake. You are also correct — playing around with the SEO apps for this post was both fun and fascinating. I learned a great deal!

    1. Hi, Kate – Thank you for the kind words! I love when other people’s writing resonates with me, and when my writing resonates with others. I agree that advice in this regard can be helpful but keeping your distinctiveness as a writer is key. In your writing, I would hate if any proofreader (human, app or plugin) messed with your unique sense of humour. Your posts have been the cause of many of my morning chuckles!

    1. ‘Homogenization’ in writing sounds like sour milk indeed!
      BTW – I ran your comment through Grammarly and the Hemmingway App.
      Grammarly gave you 100%. Hemmingway gave your comment a Grade 6 reading level (which they loved). It also gave you a perfect score on everything else…except for your use of adverbs (you used two which they believed were two too many). Thanks for commenting.

    1. This holds true for me as well. All of the bloggers that I regularly hang out with (on my site, or their site, or both) I’ve found through other bloggers. I am a big fan of our little blogging community!

  3. Well, that was sobering. I checked a few of my recent posts using the Hemingway app and found out just how bad of a writer I really am.

    Eh, I ain’t in school anymore. So what’s on TV tonight?


  4. I have never felt the urge to run my posts through those SEO tools… I guess I just don’t care enough. If blogging starts to feel like a “job,” I’m outta here (especially at the current pay level). That being said, I do try to improve my writing (I am guilty of falling into the passive tone sometimes) all the time, which is one of the reasons I started my blog.

    Funny that you ran Hemmingway’s writing through the SEO plugin! (Don’t tell anyone, but I actually never thought much of his writing.)
    Janis recently posted…GratiTuesday: Public Broadcasting and Its SupportersMy Profile

    1. Hi, Janis – I LOVE your writing style just the way it is (and that’s the truth).
      Your secret about Hemingway’s writing style is safe with me!

  5. Glad you’re having fun with this. It reminds me of when I used to write for young adults, and everything had to be geared to a certain range on the Lexile score — kind of like a Yoast SEO rating which presumably showed the level of reading difficulty. It’s a good idea for grade school and middle school kids. Kinda useless for the rest of us.
    Tom Sightings recently posted…What’s Your Retirement Role?My Profile

    1. Hi, Tom – Thanks for commenting. It was quite a fun exercise. I fear that readability concerns is a comment on the estimated reading level of some blog readers.

  6. That is really great that you put Hemingway into those apps. I like your sense of humor! And interesting results. I’ll check out those apps. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Jill – Before I set myself up for potential anguish, I wanted to know how these apps worked and what they had to say about a well-known author who was known for his sharp, straightforward writing. It was a fun process. As the apps are free, I may use some of them now and then (only because I currently do not have any other proofreaders and I am terrible at proofreading my own work)!

  7. This whole SEO thing is doing nothing less than making me SMH. It just seems overwhelming and then I think, this is all so simple and I’m making it hard like I always do. Mostly I think, WHATEVER. LOL I use Grammarly all the time. I suppose I should try the others but I know I’ll overthink the whole thing.

    1. Hi, Pam – “Making it hard…like I always do” are soul-mate words to me! I am off to check out your recent post now.

    1. Hi, Candy – This has been the one constant feature of blogging for me — there is always something new to learn! Thank you for hosting he Blogging Grandmothers Link Party. I look forward to being a regular participant.

    1. Hi, Carol – My MOST SINCERE apologies for my LONG delay in replying. Your comment was hiding in my spam folder (which I swear I do check daily). I totally agree about staying true to yourself and your writing. I’m off to check out your site now.

  8. When I was self-hosted for 5 minutes, I used the SEO plugins that seemed to be at war with each other. My posts rarely went in the “green.” Once I went back to WP dot com, I no worry no more. Great info though, glad you shared it!

    1. Hi, Terri – You give very convincing arguments to switch to My technology learning curve remains very steep! Thanks for sharing this extra piece of information, it is very helpful.

  9. Very interesting and amusing post! Although I understand the place of SEO programs, I’ve been thinking some of the same thoughts you expressed here! Best to use these programs in moderation and make sure their suggestions line up with your intentions for your writing.

    Thank you for sharing at #BloggingGrandmothersLinkParty

    1. Hi, Lori – Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I agree with you completely. Some of the suggestions of the ‘SEO/readability apps/plugins’ do change the intended meaning. This is important to keep in mind (and be on the lookout for).

  10. Oh my goodness, Hemmingway had issues too? That is both discouraging and empowering at the same time. I use Yoast and those little circles can sometimes that the fun out of the writing process. Thank you for this thorough article and for letting me know I am not alone. Thank you for sharing at the #BloggingGrandmothersLinkParty. I have shared on social media.
    Clearissa Coward recently posted…Blogging Grandmothers Link PartyMy Profile

    1. Hi, Clarissa – Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. One of the aspects that I love most about blogging is that it helps me to realize that I am not alone–whether the topic be retirement, grand parenting…or blogging!

  11. I use the paid version of Grammarly and find it very useful. I’d certainly say my writing has improved, although there are some occasions when its suggestion does not always make sense and I’ll click on ‘ignore’.
    Great insights into all three, Donna. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    1. Hi, Hugh – I’m glad to hear that you have found Grammarly Premium to be useful. It is great to hear what resources work well for other bloggers!

        1. I’d love to hear about what other on-line blogging resources you (and your readers) find useful. Perhaps this could be a topic for one of your future ‘Blogging Tips’ posts?

          1. Hi, Hugh – Thanks so much for the link to Richard’s post. That was incredibly useful. I was especially intrigued by ‘alternativeto’ that he mentioned. This free website lists alternatives to specific web-based software and mobile apps. I typed in the ‘Hemmingway App’ and immediately received 15 alternatives (14 of which I had never heard of previously).

            Language Tool
            Expresso App
            Just Not Sorry – the Gmail Plug-In
            and, of course, Grammarly

            Thanks, Hugh and Richard. I will definitely add ‘Alternativeto’ to my repertoire of resources for my blog.

  12. In my former work role, search engine optimization was a real ongoing concern. But my blog is just for fun, and I have zero concern about gideon sockpuppet hitting the front page of a google search. Maybe someday in the future when I develop a second act passion career, I’ll need an online presence for which SEO will matter.

    On a somewhat related topic, I am fascinated to see how blogging and other online pursuits have changed people’s everyday literacies. We are no longer just readers; we are writers.

    Dr Sock recently posted…A Sentimental JourneyMy Profile

    1. Hi, Jude – you raise an interesting point about technology’s role in our evolving everyday literacies. Lots to think about! Thanks for sharing this.

  13. Love your blog Donna. I just retired from 40 years as an educator. Quite an adjustment…still struggling to get my footing. Love your posts, travels, and joy along the way! Advice and experience in this new frontier is welcomed! Keep on blogging!

    1. Hi, Debbie – Thank you so much for your kind words. Sounds like we have many things in common. Do you have a blog? If so, please share the link with me – I would love to read it!

    1. Hi, Leanne – Thanks so much for stopping by. I’ve now read many posts on your site. I sincerely love it just the way that it is. I wouldn’t change a thing!

    1. Hi, Ally – Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m so sorry that my post caused you the extra bother to check your writing against the Grammarly/Hemmingway/Yoast apps. 😀 If you find any of them addictive, there are 14 other ‘proofreading’ apps that I mentioned to Hugh in a comment above. 🙂

    1. Hi, Joe – I’m so glad that you found this post helpful. And, if neither Grammarly, Hemmingway or Yoast work for you, there are (at least) 14 other ‘writing apps’ to check out!
      Language Tool
      Expresso App
      Just Not Sorry – the Gmail Plug-In

    1. Hi, Debbie – I have to confess, I’m truly a nerd at heart. I love knowing what is ‘out there’ and sampling to see if any of it works for me. It definitely was fun to explore.

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