Are you aware of the risks of overusing the passive voice in your writing? In the readability analysis in our Yoast SEO plugin, we recommend using the passive voice in a maximum of 10% of your sentences. But why? In this post, I will discuss a couple of key questions pertaining to the passive voice. I’ll start by explaining what it is. Then, I’ll explain why it is usually best to avoid using the passive voice in your writing. To cap it off, I’ll describe some situations in which using the passive voice makes perfect sense.

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What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is a grammatical construction. The easiest way to explain the passive voice is by contrasting it with the active voice. The active voice is the standard English sentence structure. The simplest possible sentences feature an actor (the subject), who does (the verb) something to either a person, animal or thing (the receiver).

Word Mom hugged me
Semantic function actor direct verb  receiver

In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around. The receiver becomes the grammatical subject. Note that the meaning of the sentence stays exactly the same. The only difference is the word order.

Word I was hugged by mom
Semantic function receiver direct verb actor

In some passive sentences, you can omit the actor. ‘I was hugged’, for example, is a perfectly sensible passive sentence, although it provides less information.

Why should I avoid the passive voice?

Let’s cut to the chase: using the passive voice almost always makes your writing more distant and your message less clear. There are two main reasons for this.

Wordy

First of all, the passive voice is wordy. The passive alternative to an active sentence is simply longer. Consider these two sentences:

1. The passive voice almost always makes your message less clear.

2. Your message is almost always made less clear by using the passive voice.

You convey the same message by using the passive, but add three words. When overusing the passive voice in your text, this can really add up.

Sentence structure

In addition, the passive voice uses a sentence structure which requires more cognitive effort. Your reader will spend valuable working memory on making sense of the sentence. This decreases the likelihood of you getting your message across.

Let’s explore why the passive voice demands more effort. As I told you before, the basic active sentence structure is quite consistent and logical in English. The passive voice turns this all the way around. You first read what was affected. Then you read what happened to it. Then you learn how it was affected. You discover who or what was responsible only at the very end. This sequence differs from how we usually make sense of events. Moreover, we expect the actor to be in the subject position, so we are slightly disoriented. This means constructing an image of what happens takes a tiny moment longer. Again, these moments can easily add up if you overuse the passive voice.

In the example I gave, there is no added benefit to using the passive: the active sentence conveys the same information. Whenever you use passive voice, always consider whether a better, active alternative is available.

What are the exceptions?

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be the only logical way to word a sentence. Mostly, this occurs when the actor is unknown or irrelevant. Let’s look at an example I used in the first paragraph of this very text:

In the passive voice, the actor and receiver are switched around.

There is no identifiable actor here, nor would he or she be relevant. After all, we’re talking about a general action here, not a specific one. Any alternative active sentence would be less clear and concise than the passive sentence I wrote, so it’s the best option available.

Alternatively, you may want to use a passive sentence to focus on the receiver. This works when the object is more central to the topic than the actor:

J.F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald.

This means that we’re not here to tell you to avoid the passive voice like the plague. If it beats the active alternative, by all means: use it! Rules pertaining to style are seldom cast in stone, so don’t make the mistake of following the rule of thumb too strictly. Do what seems right to you and what makes your text flow nicely. A maximum of 10% generally suffices. You should be able to achieve numbers even lower than that by following our advice.

Conclusion

Using the passive voice is generally a bad idea. After writing your text, scan it for passive voice constructions. Always ask yourself: is a better, active alternative available? If there is, use it. If not, use the passive voice.

Read more: ‘SEO copywriting: the ultimate guide’ »

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False friends are words that seem very similar but have a different meaning in different languages. Take the word sensible. It means reasonable in English but sensitive in French and Spanish. Sometimes, the same term can even refer to something completely different in two varieties of English. In this post, I will tell you why it is important for SEOs to be aware of this. I will also give some practical pointers. 

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Multilingual sites and SEO

As SEOs, it is our job to know what search terms people use. After all, that allows us to optimize our pages for those terms. This is a challenge in our native language as it is. If you have a multilingual site, however, keyword research and SEO copywriting can quickly become a minefield.

You should be aware of the terms people around the world use to find your products. This allows you to optimize your copy for any audience. Doing so will increase your number of potential customers. Moreover, you may just be able to snag an advantage over competitors by targeting audiences more specifically.

Multi-regional sites and SEO

Striking differences also exist between regions. Just because you speak the same language, doesn’t mean you use the same vocabulary. It is important to note that Google is improving at identifying synonyms. There is still a lot of work to be done, though. Less common languages and their variations are still a work in progress. This presents a great opportunity to gain an edge!

Of course, you can’t target every variation. The UK and U.S., however, may be different and sizable enough to target separately. The same goes for some varieties of Spanish and other common languages. Plainly put, not taking variations into account can also lead to missed opportunities.

So, what’s the worst that could happen?

Sure, the theory’s fine and dandy. What are the risks you need take into account, though, when writing multilingual and multi-regional copy? Well, if you use the wrong term, potential customers will not find what they are looking for. Hence, your bounce rate will increase. Obviously, your conversion rates will suffer as a consequence.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. Years ago, Joost helped a company to rank number one in Belgium for the Dutch word koelkast (refrigerator). One of Belgium’s official languages is Flemish, a variation of Dutch. Surprisingly, the company hardly converted. Turns out, the word koelkast is mostly used in the Netherlands. In Belgium, many consumers searched for the word frigo, which Flemish borrows from French!

Multilingual and multi-regional sites: example case

Let’s look at an example case: the word vest. To keep things relatively simple, I’ll stick to Dutch, British English and American English. In this way, I can stress the importance of both multilingual and multi-regional variations.

a vest in dutch uk and us englishAn American vest is a British waistcoat. A British vest is called a tank-top or a-shirt in America. Incidentally, a tank-top is also a piece of clothing in the UK. Americans, however, call that a sweater vest. To top it off, the Dutch vest is either a cardigan or a hoodie with a zipper. Feeling confused? Don’t sweat it, whatever vest you’re wearing. Few examples are as complicated as this. Just know that veste means something different altogether in French and Spanish as well.

SEO copywriting for multilingual sites: What can I do?

Researching your field and the potential risks it presents is crucial. An international clothing company will encounter more difficulties than a book store. Make sure you have a clear strategy. What audiences do you want to target and what vocabulary do they use? Invest time in researching terms you’re unsure about. You can use Google Trends to compare the frequency of search terms. It even gives you an overview of how popular each term is by region.

google trends trainers vs sneakers

Although most of the world prefers the term sneaker for sporty footwear, the UK is an obvious exception, as Google Trends shows.

If you own or manage a bigger organization that has some money to spend, consider hiring a specialist or outsourcing copy translations. If you want to be cost-effective, you can also reach out to native speakers in your network. People may even volunteer to translate parts of your site if they like what you do.

Conclusion

Writing SEO copy for multilingual and multi-regional sites requires a lot of effort, especially for non-native speakers. Make sure you research what keywords particular audiences use for your products. Substitute your original copy for these terms to gain potential customers. By breaking up with false friends, you’re one step closer to realizing the potential of a multilingual site!

Read more: ‘SEO Copywriting: the ultimate guide’ »

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