It’s no secret that keywords are incredibly important for SEO, but what about sentences? Do they really matter?
To cut a long story short – yes, sentence structure is absolutely essential for SEO, and for more reasons than you might think.
It’s easy to pay a lot of attention to keywords, but if they aren’t presented clearly, they won’t achieve their full ranking potential.
When structured correctly, well-formed sentences can help us understand and process information much more clearly. In SEO, sentence structure is therefore a vital consideration when writing user-friendly content.
It is a seriously underutilised way to improve rankings and web content. Sentence structure can be optimised to leverage better readability, as well as improve Google’s understanding of your content.
As we’ll see later in the article, people prefer to read web content in specific ways, and so does Google. This means that content creators have a lot to consider when it comes to writing for SEO.
Let’s take a look at the role of sentence structure in SEO, and more importantly, how to improve it. First, let’s explore why sentence structure is important for SEO.
Why is sentence structure so important for SEO?
Words are the building blocks of language. They are the linguistic units of meaning that help us make sense of the world around us. Sentences, on the other hand, are the carriers of this information.
Here’s another way to think about it: if the English language was a house, words would be the bricks, and sentences the architecture. We’d feel most at home in a house that felt well-constructed, helped us live practically, and was just the right size.
The same goes for sentence structure in SEO. The text should be easy to read, help searchers find the information they are looking for, and keep to a sensible amount. Not only is sentence structure important for readability, it can also help cater to online reading styles.
1. People ‘scan’ web content
When users search the web, they have a particular search intent in mind. They might be looking to make a purchase, compare products, or find out more information on a particular topic.
Regardless of search intent, people often do one thing before diving into the details of the text: scan the content.
Scanning is the process of giving pages a quick glance to find relevant details. This is how people read web content. In fact, a study by Nielsen Norman Group found that 79% of users scanned new pages they came across online.
Users are unlikely to read web content word-by-word the way they would a book or journal article. This is because searchers always have a particular search intent in mind. They scan the page before reading it to:
- Check the page is relevant to their search query
- Gauge how in-depth the page is
- Find specific information
As a result, it’s vital to consider how to make web content easily scannable for users.
2. Search engines also scan web content
Did you know that search engines also scan web content before processing the finer details?
In the same way that humans read content on the web, Google scans the page’s top-level structures to understand the topic. After a page is crawled, there are a few things that Google looks at first to determine the meaning. These include:
- Headings – Google analyses the presence of certain keywords in headings and determines their relevance to the topic.
- Keywords – Google uses keywords and related words for further understanding of the topic.
- Semantic analysis – Google determines how words relate to one another, and how they relate to the topic as a whole. In order for Google to understand the semantics of a page, words must be pieced together logically with a clear sentence structure.
- Bolded text – Google’s John Mueller recently confirmed that bolded text can help your SEO, as this can help draw Googlebot’s attention towards the sentences that are most important. Hey Google 👋.
So, not only is it important to make web content scannable for users, it’s also necessary for search engines.
3. User readability
The user should always be at the forefront when considering improvements for SEO, and this philosophy is no different when it comes to sentence structure.
Text structure has a significant impact on readability. Simply put, if your content is not readable, people won’t read it!
For example, if sentences are too long, the reader might struggle to follow the meaning. In contrast, if they are too short, they might seem robotic.
Poor writing can have a significant impact on the time users spend on your page. Searchers rely on on-page content to understand the topic. So if this is not clear, they are likely to look elsewhere.
However, strong writing can encourage users to stay on your page, and even navigate further into your site. Plus, better writing will increase your site’s credibility.
4. Help Google understand the text
Google is pretty good at understanding language, with impressive Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities. As a search engine that’s getting closer and closer to understanding language like a human, it’s easy to forget that Google is still a robot (a smart one, at that).
Remember that Google can only understand what we tell it, and the extent to which this is understood depends on how we tell it.
If your content is organised with clear sentence structures, Google will have an easier time understanding the meaning. And because Google loves high-quality, easy-to-read content, your page will have a higher chance of ranking.
Natural Language Processing (NLP): how google understands sentences
In order to really see the difference that sentence structure can make, let’s take a deeper look at how Google processes syntax (syntax is a fancy word for sentence structure).
Google uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies to understand web content and user queries. This is a technology embedded in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence (AI) that lets computers understand and synthesise speech.
We can get an insight into Google’s application of NLP using its very own Natural Language AI tool. This tool lets you see exactly how Google processes sentences.
Let’s take a look at an example of active voice vs. passive voice sentences.
Active and passive are two types of grammatical voice used in English. In active voice, the subject performs the action. In passive voice, the subject receives the action.
Active voice example: ‘The dog bit the postman’
Passive voice example: ‘The postman was bitten by the dog’
Both of these sentences carry the exact same meaning, the only difference being sentence structure.
In the example of active voice (the dog bit the postman), the sentence structure is direct and there is less going on syntactically – notice there are fewer of those green dependency arrows. As a result, Google is having to make less effort when piecing these words together – not only because there are fewer words, but because there are fewer grammatical complexities to consider.
The key takeaway here is that simple sentences are easier for Google to process. Whilst Google’s linguistic capabilities are becoming increasingly advanced, it’s never a bad idea to make sentences clear and easy to process.
Although, do consider whether simpler sentences are contextually appropriate for your topic and audience. For instance, there are sometimes good reasons to use passive voice.
5. Gain featured snippets
We’ve talked about how much Google loves concise, quality content. And this couldn’t be clearer when considering Google’s increased use of featured snippets in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
Featured snippets are short extracts of text that appear at the beginning of search results. These are sometimes referred to as ‘position 0’ results, providing an immediate answer to the search query.
Featured snippets are directly related to sentence structure. They almost always consist of short, simple sentences that appear in concise, isolated paragraphs.
The ability to gain featured snippets is just one of the many additional benefits to optimising sentence structure for SEO content. Google is unlikely to show featured snippets with lengthy, disorganised sentence structures.
How to improve sentence structure for SEO
1. List topics
Before getting started with the finer details of sentence structure, it’s important to consider how the overall piece appears. Remember, readers will scan web content before reading word-by-word in order to gauge the topic and find the answers to their questions.
Start out by listing the topics you want to cover. Gather all the information that’s relevant to the topic and list it. Then, bundle similar topics together. Think about which topics best answer the searchers’ questions, and what kinds of supporting themes would add value.
There are several tools you can use to list topics:
Getting all of this down in one place will help you structure sentences more effectively later on. It’s never a good idea to go ahead and write an article without proper planning – start with a top-level approach and worry about the nitty-gritty details later.
Learn more about how to research topics with a semantic SEO approach.
2. Order topics
Once you’ve listed which topics you want to cover, it’s time to order them.
Order the topics in a way that helps the content make more sense to the reader. There are a few ways to do this, and how you structure the text will depend on the type of content. Here are some examples of how to order topics:
- Thematic – order based on theme, placing the most similar sections closely to one another.
- Chronological – order from old to new, first to last, or best to worst. This is seen commonly amongst product review articles.
- Didactic – order based on difficulty, going from easy to hard as the text progresses. This is common across educational articles.
- Problem-solution – present the problem in the first half of the text, followed by the solution(s) in the following half. Notice how this structure is used in this article!
3. Use headings and subheadings
Headings make text so much easier to read. Using headings improves the overall structure of your page or article, breaking the content down into relevant subsections. This creates a better reading experience for users, which is better for your SEO.
When writing headings, think about the kinds of information that users are looking for. Consider the searcher’s needs and what’s important to the reader. This way, the reader can find the information they are looking for much more efficiently.
Headings and subheadings should be meaningful. Avoid using “clever” ones that require some reading between the lines.
You should also consider keywords when writing headings. Think about how search engines would perceive the content. Ask yourself, do the headings provide a sufficient overview of the topic? If not, think about whether the headings provide enough context.
4. Use short sentences
Short sentences are direct and to the point. This helps readers understand the text’s main points without distraction. Whilst verbose sentences might sound impressive, it’s easy to dilute your main point with unnecessary words.
Don’t get me wrong, writing should be expressive. You are creating content for human readers, after all, so a little personality won’t go amiss. But do consider that the searcher is seeking specific information – so avoid burying it in convoluted sentences!
How long should sentences be for SEO?
Sentences should be short and concise for SEO, at around 20 words or fewer. There are no fixed guidelines on how long or short a sentence should be, but short sentences are generally better for readability. Not all sentences have to be short, this would sound unnatural, but 20 words or fewer is a good guideline to follow.
Sentence length will depend on the type of content you are writing, and the intended audience.
For example, a scientific article intended for professional or academic audiences might include highly detailed sentences. Whereas an educational page targeted toward children would benefit from short, simple sentences.
In either case, avoid word fluff and keep your sentences to the point.
5. Consider word order
Human language is characterised by words. Words have common-sense meanings, which we more or less understand when we hear or see them.
We can generally recognise words and sentences without really thinking about them – but only when the word order makes sense to us.
If the word order is distorted in some way, readers will have certain questions about it, and so will Google.
Consider the following examples:
- “Sentence structure is important for SEO.”
- “Structured sentences for SEO are important.”
- “Important for SEO are structured sentences.”
- “For structure are SEO important sentences”
Most English readers would typically judge (1) as totally acceptable.
- (2) would be comprehensible, but not well-formed.
- (3) would make some sense, but it might take some thinking to understand the meaning (unless you were Yoda).
- (4) would be judged as completely incomprehensible.
When crafting your sentences, it’s important to remember that there is always an optimal structure. If a sentence doesn’t feel right, list alternative word orders to determine the most appropriate sequence.
6. Use paragraphs
Paragraphs are used to segment sentences into organised sections, and are a staple of all good SEO content.
Google loves paragraphs, and your readers do too. They help organise information into meaningful structures, with each section introducing the next relevant point in the topic. Our brains are naturally wired to process information this way – we like to take information in one step at a time and understand the beginning, middle and end.
If we were presented with a huge chunk of information all at once, this would feel overwhelming.
Paragraphs have the benefit of breaking your content down and making it more readable (and less daunting!).
How long should a paragraph be for SEO?
For SEO, paragraphs should be kept fairly short. Keep paragraphs to a maximum of around 10 sentences to avoid making them too long. Although, this will depend on the context of the topic. Make some paragraphs longer, and some shorter – mixing paragraph lengths can help your content read more fluidly.
7. Use transition words
One really simple way to improve sentence structure in SEO is with the use of transition words.
Transition words help bridge sentences and paragraphs together, helping ideas flow together more seamlessly. They act as language cues that help the reader understand the meaning and structure of the text. These terms are used commonly in SEO content to improve readability.
Here are some of the most common transition words, and when to use them:
For additional information
‘and’, ‘additionally’, ‘furthermore’, ‘also’, ‘as well as’, ‘what’s more’, ‘in addition’, ‘furthermore’.
For comparison or contrast
‘but’, ‘in contrast’, ‘whereas’, ‘however’, ‘compared to’, ‘although’, ‘meanwhile’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘yet’, ‘while’.
‘similarly’, ‘likewise’, ‘equally’.
‘for example’, ‘for instance’.
‘most importantly’, ‘in essence’, ‘above all’.
For enumeration and sequence
‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, ‘next’, ‘lastly’, ‘following this’, ‘now’, ‘at this point’, ‘afterward’, ‘finally’.
‘in conclusion’, ‘to conclude’, ‘to summarise’, ‘on the whole’, ‘in summary’.
For cause and effect
‘As a result’, ‘due to’, ‘because’, ‘therefore’, ‘consequently’.
While transition words can help your content flow more smoothly, avoid sticking them into sentences for the sake of it. Too many transition words can distract from the core meaning of the text.
8. Nail your opening paragraph
The first paragraph can either make or break your content. If you are going to improve sentence structures anywhere, improve your opening paragraphs.
The first paragraph sets the scene for the reader. Introduction paragraphs should provide an overview of what the content is about and explain the key message that you want readers and Google to understand.
It’s particularly important to ease the reader in and help Google interpret your page accurately using simple sentences. If your sentence structure is convoluted at the very beginning, this could confuse users and search engines.
Here are some quick tips for writing an opening paragraph:
- Use short sentences – this is crucial in your first paragraph. Don’t risk alienating your reader by trying to sound too fancy!
- Capture readers’ interest – relate to the problem. And most importantly, tell them how you’ve solved the problem!
- Frame the article – set expectations about what the content covers.
- Include the focus keyword in your first paragraph.
- Ask the reader a direct question – this type of sentence structure can help relate to the reader’s problem. It also carries conversational tones, which can help the reader connect with your content.
On the whole, sentence structure is, and always will be, an important factor in SEO.
There are two main reasons for this:
- Readers want quick, accessible information.
- Google is getting increasingly better at understanding language.
What was once a search engine that simply recognised keywords is now capable of advanced language processing.
This means that Google is getting better at understanding the details, making better judgments on what constitutes quality content, and what is valuable to searchers.
As a result, there has never been a greater time to focus on the finer details of language in SEO; both for the benefit of readers and search engines.
Jacob has a background in linguistics and digital language, with a keen interest in all things content!