Readability and SEO (search engine optimization) go hand-in-hand. Search engines like Google are on the hunt for the most valuable, relevant results for user queries. That means not only finding the best information, but also finding content that’s interesting and easy to read.
But there’s no magic recipe for readable content, is there? And even if there was, how would a computer be able to measure it?
In fact, there are certain factors search engines watch to try to gage the readability of content. By knowing what search engines are looking for, you can structure your online content in a way that boosts your SEO—and connects better with your readers.
How do search engines measure readability and engagement for SEO?
Humans tend to read websites a certain way—we skim text, browsing through subheadings to try to find what we’re looking for quickly. If we come up against a huge chunk of text that’s hard to understand, we get frustrated and leave.
That’s why, as search engines strive to measure and mimic human behaviour, they’ve come to value websites that are skimmable and easy to read.
Search engines look at:
- Article Length: If you only have 100 words on a page, chances are you’re not giving a thorough answer to a search query. Search engines will look elsewhere for a more satisfying result.
- Reading Level: This is measured by the number of difficult words in the text and the length of the sentences. Is the article written so that people who read at a Grade 8 level can enjoy it? Or do you need a university degree to understand it?
- Easy-to-Skim Format: Have you formatted the text so it’s easy for people to quickly skim and find information? Search engines measure this by how many subheadings you use and the amount of text between each one.
- Reader engagement: How on earth do search engines measure engagement? It’s quite simple: they measure how much time a user spends on a page. If most users navigate away from a page in a few seconds, search engines judge the content to be bad. If most users spend a few minutes on the page, however, search engines know the content must be valuable.
Tips for improving your readability and SEO
Since you now have an idea what search engines are looking for, you can structure your content to be more attractive to them.
Here’s what you should keep in mind:
Make your text easy enough for a 13-year-old to read comfortably
You don’t care what English reading level your customers are at—so why write articles that only university graduates can understand?
It makes sense to keep your website as accessible for people as possible. After all, people of all reading levels use the Internet to find plumbers, hair stylists and pet stores. This is even more important in a city like Toronto, where English is not the first language for many people.
To help you gage the reading level of your copy, you can use measures like the Flesch–Kincaid readability test. This test analyses written copy and gives it a score out of 100.
Here’s how the score breaks down:
- 70-100: Grade 5 to 7 reading level, easy to read
- 60-70: Grade 8 to 9 level, average “plain English”
- 50-60: Grade 10 to 12, fairly difficult
- 30-50: College or university, difficult
- 0-30: University graduate, very difficult
In most cases, you want your articles to score at least 60, so that most people can read and understand them.
So, how can you make your text easier to read?
- Use simple words. Avoid using too many difficult words (with four or more syllables).
- Keep your sentences short. Obviously, sometimes you need a long sentence, but aim for most sentences to have 20 words or less.
Want to put your writing to the test? You can copy-and-paste articles into an Automatic Online Readability Checker to see your score. For WordPress users, plugins like Yoast SEO can help you monitor your readability score, plus other SEO factors.
But wait, is simpler writing always better?
As with many rules in life, there are exceptions to SEO best practices. At times, you may find yourself writing text that scores at a higher reading level—and that’s okay.
Remember, search engines measure engagement. Therefore, it’s more important to write a valuable article than one than one that follows every SEO rule.
In certain situations, it’s okay to ignore SEO best practices about reading level. For example, when your article scores at a higher reading level because:
- You’re including the names of organizations. A bio or credentials page, for example, could include mention of many organizations. Names like “Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas” can include a lot of difficult words and cause your sentences to be long. However, including relevant organization names is more important than your page’s overall reading level score.
- You use niche or industry-specific words that are difficult. For example, a physiotherapist article may include words like osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal. These tricky words could bump the article up to a university reading level, which is generally a bad SEO practice—but not in this case. It’s always better to use the proper words that apply to your readers and industry, even if they’re difficult. After all, those may be the very keywords that people search to find your website in the first place.
The reading level you write at depends, in part, on your subject and audience. A science blog, for example, will tend to be at a higher reading level than a food blog.
Even in cases where you write at a higher reading level, however, be sure to follow the other SEO readability tips.
Format your text to be spacious and skimmable
In many cases, people won’t read through your entire article. They’ll skim through it, looking for specific bits of information.
You can make it easier for people to skim—and boost your SEO—by following these guidelines:
- Keep your paragraphs short. Big blocks of text are intimidating and hard to skim. Break up your copy into smaller paragraphs to create more visual “breathing room” for your reader.
- Use subheadings to break your article into sections. This helps your reader skim through the topics within an article, plus provides a clear structure. As a general recommendation, don’t go more than 300 words without splitting up the section with a subheading.
- Highlight important text in bold to help readers catch key pieces of information.
- Make use of lists to help organize instructions or information.
Write interesting, authentic articles
At the end of the day, engagement is king.
Remember, Google measures engagement by tracking how long people stay on a page. You can break every SEO writing practice there is—if people are coming to your pages and staying long enough to read them, that’s the only metric that matters.
However, if most people navigate away from your pages after a few seconds, something about the writing just isn’t working.
You can use Google Analytics to see how long the average person stays on the pages of your site. If you see that people are navigating away from certain pages quickly, it may help to have some friends look them over and provide feedback.
Not sure what to write about? Check out my earlier article on SEO writing tips for creating your own content.
And, of course, you may also consider hiring a writer to improve your content. A professional writer can create engaging articles that keep readers on the page. A writer with SEO experience can go the extra mile by creating content that attracts new readers in the first place.