The active voice is usually better than the passive. But not always.
Jakob Nielsen writes at Alertbox: “Active voice is best for most web content, but using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.”
Nielsen’s argument makes sense. He says: “Usability increases when users need fewer mental transformations to convert a sentence into actionable understanding.”
In simpler terms: readers’ brains work harder getting meaning out of passive sentences. Sentences written using the active voice are easier to understand. Readers have more chance of grasping the writer’s meaning and they’ll reach that point faster.
This explains why old school journalists use the active voice.
Forget SEO – think how people read
Nielsen says putting keywords at the start of a headline helps search engine optimisation (SEO) – the art of tweaking writing so articles appear near the top of Google search results listings.
That’s all well and good. I won’t argue. However, as I’ve explained earlier SEO isn’t the only way to run a successful web site.
My concern is helping readers understand meaning and find information. It turns out the first two words in any text element – and that includes the headline – offer crucial pointers for readers looking for information. They scan down text looking for key words.
As Nielsen puts it: “Front-loading important keywords trumps most other design considerations.”
It is still best to stick with simple, active sentences in your body copy. But for headlines, the passive voice may be a better option.