Good writing meets SEO ratings and doesn’t cut it: Our test

Google has told the search engine optimization experts over the last year or so that strong content would trump the old ploys of keyword stuffing, link schemes and sneaky redirects when it comes to SEO and page rank. One might think good writing equals strong content. But according to one of the most popular SEO rating plug-ins, one would be wrong.


Here at Blue Coast Media Group, we use the Yoast SEO plug-in to analyze SEO on our blog posts. Just about every blog uses some sort of SEO rating system, and Yoast’s is the most popular for WordPress, our content management system. In the current release of Yoast SEO, the writer selects a keyword, fills out some information and receives a red light, orange light or green light on how the post performs for the particular keyword. The system, though not perfect, raises a writer’s awareness of who might be looking for the information in the post and how they would search.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that Yoast had added a tab to its rating options: CONTENT. And we noticed our content was getting a red light and the comment BAD.

Oh no, we were writing bad posts! How could that be? Then we took a look at the details of what was wrong with our posts, and we decided to see how Yoast SEO would rate a piece of writing that was critically acclaimed, widely read and even prize-winning.

We chose Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One,” her story on seismic risk in the Pacific Northwest for The New Yorker that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and a National Magazine Award. We plugged it into our CMS and looked at the results.

Image of good writing SEO ratingThe story got a green light (good) for the keyword earthquake.

But the award-winning story got a “bad” red light for content. One of the subheadings precedes a section that has more than 300 words, 14 paragraphs contain more than 150 words, 36.7 percent of the sentences contain more than 20 words and 15.5 percent of sentences contain passive voice.

The only positive in this acclaimed article: 46.1 percent of the sentences contain a transition word or phrase.

Overall, BAD BAD BAD on you Kathryn Schulz.


We felt better when we looked at the results of this test. We decided we would rather write something like “The Really Big One” for our clients than something that has a green light on content from Yoast SEO.

Maybe Yoast SEO decided the same, because within a week a new release of the plug-in softened its content rating. What had said “Content: Bad” now said “Readability: Needs Improvement.”

Clearly, Yoast SEO and other automated plug-ins haven’t figured out how to identify and rate the kind of good writing that makes a great story. Perhaps it’s like that old Supreme Court definition of porn — we know it when we see it. Good writing may draw the reader in immediately or slowly. It’s probably full of details, which sometimes produce long sentences and long paragraphs. It doesn’t always lend itself to a subhead after 300 words, and sometimes it does not meet the readability standard of 13- to 15-year-olds.

We resisted the impulse to test a bit of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Tolstoy. Some things. we’d just rather not know.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We edited out a passive or two in this post to obtain a good rating for our content. Here’s the whole picture.


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