Online content, and the algorithms used to evaluate it, are always changing. Staying at the top of search engine rankings requires adherence to a variety of written and unwritten rules. You need to include relevant keywords without using them too many times, make sure your article or post offers unique insights, and focus on content that is actually interesting to your readers—all at the same time.
Before we get started, we start out with a teaser video we created for this content piece using Verblio’s new Engagement video service. It’s designed for social media to drive more eyeballs to written content on a website.
But one rule many people don’t know (or just don’t understand) is that—like keywords, meta descriptions, and alt text—the readability of your content matters. In fact, most online content is written at a reading level appropriate for thirteen to fifteen-year-olds. While there are certainly some industries where it’s a good idea to go above that level, publishing website content that’s easy to read is a critical part of keeping readers interested and engaged. And keeping readers interested in your content can have a serious impact on your SEO ranking.
How do you know how readable your content is? Understanding how to calculate Flesch Reading Ease (sometimes referred to as Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease) is a great place to start.
What Is the Flesch Reading Ease Score?
The Flesch Reading Ease score is a tool for calculating the approximate reading level of English-language content, relying on the structure of the English language to provide an accurate result. Sentence length and the length of the words within the sentence are both taken into consideration when calculating the Flesch readability score.
Short sentences and small words receive a higher score, while long sentences with longer words receive lower scores. Typically, a score of 100 or more means that the content is very simple and easy to read. A score of 60-70 means that your content is perfect for intermediate readers at or above an 8th or 9th-grade reading level, and a score of 0-30 is more suited for university work than for the internet. This paragraph, for example, scores around a 62 on the Flesch Readability Scale, which means that it falls right in the average range for online content.
In case you want to get serious about your content’s readability, the actual formula for calculating your reading ease score is as follows:
Flesch Reading Ease = 206.835 – (1.015 x Average Sentence Length) – (84.6 x Average Syllables Per Word)
Average sentence length can be calculated by dividing the number of words by the number of sentences.
The average number of syllables per word can be calculated by dividing the number of syllables by the number of words.
However, if you’re like most people and don’t have the time or patience to count all of the words, sentences, and syllables in a blog post, fear not! There are tools to help.
Tools for Testing Flesch Readability
There are several tools that will enable you to check your Flesch scores.
Microsoft Office offers an in-program tool that provides a readability score. You can also use web-based calculators like Readability-Score or The Writer. If you’re a WordPress user, the plugin Yoast SEO includes a feature that automatically tests for Flesch Reading Ease.
While your score may vary slightly depending on the specific program that you use, the results should be fairly consistent, as long as the program uses the Flesch algorithm to calculate readability.
Flesch Reading Ease SEO: Why Does It Matter?
The algorithms that determine SEO ranking change constantly, are not always transparent, and not all of those factors are easily defined. No one knows for sure whether or not Google calculates Flesch readability, but the readability of your article does impact your search engine ranking. In general, if a piece of content is too difficult to read, people won’t remain on the page for long.
You may have as little as eight seconds to capture the average reader’s attention and convince them to stay on the page long enough to finish the article. If the content isn’t engaging enough to catch their attention or simple enough to keep them reading, they’ll click away, leading to the dreaded high bounce rate. Too many instances of quick clicks that result in visitors leaving your page can swiftly drop your search engine ranking.
It’s also important to note that most internet searchers aren’t looking for complex, complicated explanations about their topic. While long-form blog posts often have a higher search engine ranking than shorter ones and many readers do appreciate more in-depth blog posts, keeping them simple, scannable, and easy to read helps increase the odds that readers will remain on the page. Generally, even complex topics should be presented in a clear, easily digestible format.
How to Increase Readability Score
Your target readability score will depend on your intended audience and on the content that you’re delivering. For example, if you’re providing information geared toward elementary school children, you’ll want to keep your content at a lower reading level. On the other hand, if you’re writing a university-level piece that involves complicated research and a deep understanding of a particular content area, you can allow your readability score to decrease substantially.
In general, you’ll want to keep web content at a score of between 60-70 to ensure that you’ll be able to reach and engage the biggest possible audience. Scoring above that number may indicate that your content is too simple, which will put readers off. If you’re consistently scoring below a 60, read on for several tricks you can employ to bring your score back up and make your content easier to read.
Keep Your Paragraphs Short
The average paragraph should contain around five sentences, but there are exceptions to that rule. Highly technical or specific content will have longer paragraphs, while simpler content may be broken up into smaller paragraphs that are easier to follow. While they may not have a substantial impact on your Flesch score, headings and subheadings will also contribute to breaking up walls of text, making it easier for readers to skim.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Action words are critical. Keep your reader engaged by avoiding passive language, while designing your words with a specific impact in mind will help produce the effect you’re looking for. Pack as much meaning as possible into as few words as possible.
You’ll be surprised by how much more readable an article becomes when you remove unnecessary words.
Shorten Your Sentences
You can babble on endlessly, cramming as much information as possible into a sentence like this one that seems to go on forever and ever, but that’s a perfect way to scare off your readers. (See how painful that was?)
Sticking to a 20-25-word maximum per sentence is a better rule of thumb. Short sentences give readers room to form their own opinions and actually absorb the information you’re presenting.
Keep it Simple
Too many writers fall into the trap of becoming overly impressed by their own vocabularies. While mixing up your words is great, you don’t have to use a complicated word when a simple one serves the same purpose. Try using small instead of minuscule, or idea instead of concept. Small changes to your writing vocabulary can help keep your reader’s attention—not to mention help you avoid sounding pretentious.
Break it Up
You’re always looking for new blog ideas, and they certainly don’t come out of thin air. Instead of cramming several concepts into a single post, try breaking them up into multiple posts. You can always publish more frequently, or better yet, create a series that spans several posts and keeps your readers coming back for more. Limiting your posts to one simple topic will keep your readers more engaged in what you’re offering, while also providing you with lots of content ideas: win-win!
Write for Your Audience, Not for Your Score
Here’s the thing about all the rules: they’re never absolute. You aren’t writing for SEO. You’re writing for real people who are going to read the things you’ve written. When you write meaningful content that adds value to your industry, people are going to read it. Keep your audience in mind with every piece you write.
If that means breaking the rules—using longer paragraphs, including more complicated words, and writing longer sentences—then go for it! Ultimately, your readers should determine the direction of your content strategy, not an algorithm. Look at the Flesch Reading Ease Score as a useful tool, rather than an oppressive rule.
When you write with your readability score in mind, you’ll discover that you produce much more crisp content that is naturally more interesting to your readers. The average internet browser reads and comprehends best at approximately a seventh-grade level. Most readers can understand more complicated content, but they just prefer to read something a bit more simple. When you deliver that content, you enhance the experience of your readers and bring them back to see what else you have to offer. Many online content writers have mastered this art.
Editor’s Note: this post first appeared in March of 2016. But the world of SEO and content marketing changes fast, so we figured it was time for an update. We’ve included new tips and details to make sure your Flesch Reading Ease strategy is on the mark in 2018.