You create website content for two reasons.

  1. To increase your visibility in search.
  2. To capture the attention of your human audience and persuade them of the value of your products or services.

Readability comes into play when considering both factors and can make a huge difference if you want to convert your website traffic into paying customers.

Search engines like Google use readability as one of their many ranking factors. Google even provides you with an option to sort results based on readability levels. Run a search for one of your main key phrases now. Click on the “Search Tools” option. Then select “Reading Level” from the “All Results” dropdown.

Readability is a key factor people use when deciding whether to stick with your website or look elsewhere.

According to research by Nielsen people decide whether to stay on a webpage or not within ten seconds. If they’re still struggling through your first sentence at this point you’ve lost them.

Hooking your audience

The same research found that people are LESS likely to leave a page the longer they stay on it. In engineering parlance this is known as ‘negative aging’.

Why is this the case? Within the first 10-20 seconds of viewing a page, a visitor is making up their mind about several things:

  • The relevance of the content to their query or interests
  • The quality and reliability of the information
  • The ease with which they can read and understand the content

The readability of the piece will have a big impact on the latter. It will also affect their judgement of the quality and relevance of your content.

If you write clear, easy to understand content, people are more likely to stay on your page long enough to become a customer.

The way people read online

The way people read printed material and online content is very different. There are two key points to keep in mind:

  • Scan reading

Rather than reading the entire page, people are more likely to ‘scan’ it for things that they find interesting or relevant.

According to Jakob Nielsen, “On the average webpage, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit. 20% is more likely.”

ACTION POINT: Keep paragraphs short. Using regular sub-headers and bullet points.

  • Page length

When people seek information online they’re usually looking for something that is easy to digest. They want a crafty cheeseburger, not a three-course meal.

ACTION POINT: If your content is too long, try breaking it up into bite-size chunks across several pages.

Useful tools to make your content more readable

So how do you improve the readability of your content? It’s all about ensuring that your target audience will be able to read it easily. How complex or simple you should make your content will depend on who your audience is.

If you’re selling a generic product to a wide market then make sure your content can be understood by anyone. If you’re marketing to well-educated specialists, aim your content at a higher reading level.

Fortunately there are some great tools to help you improve the readability level of your content.

Hemingway App

Even experienced copywriters can use a little help with readability. One tool that we use to check  readability is Hemingway. We used it to check this post and it has a readability of Grade 7. That means it should be readable by an average 13 year old.

Copy and paste your content into the free app. It then tells you the reading difficulty of the piece on a graded scale. To help you simplify your copy, it also identifies sentences that are ‘hard to read’ or ‘very hard to read’.

Hemingway suggests modifications you can make to your text to improve its readability significantly. For example:

  • Breaking one sentence into two
  • Removing passive voice
  • Replacing an obscure word with a more common one

Readibility evaluation in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word has another useful tool. Select ‘Word Options’ from the drop down menu within the program, then highlight the proofing tab. Place a checkmark next to ‘show readability statistics’ and then click OK. Now when you perform a spelling and grammar check on your copy you can also assess its readability.

This tool uses the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Both of these tests quantify how easy a text is to read in relation to standard reading level.

The Flesch Reading Ease Test

Austrian author Rudolph Flesch developed the Flesch Reading Ease Test. Flesch was a supporter of the Plain English Movement. His first interest was in making legal documents easier to understand.

His formula takes the average sentence length and the average number of syllables per word to produce a score between 0 and 100. This is the score outputted in Word for ‘Flesch Reading ease’.

Here’s what the scores mean:

  • 0 – 30 – Suitable for university graduates
  • 60 – 70 – Suitable for 13- 15 year olds
  • 90 – 100 – Suitable for an 11 year old with an average reading level

This article has a Flesch Reading Ease of 60.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score developed this idea further. It gives a piece of writing an actual grade level based on the US education system.

This was developed for the US Navy by a team led by J. Peter Kincaid, an American educator and scientist. Word outputs the US grade level under the ‘Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level’ heading.

These grade levels are converted to the British system as follows:

  • US grade 2 – 5 = Year 3 – 6 (6-11 year old)
  • US grade 6 – 10 = Year 7 – 11 (12-16 year old)
  • US grade 11 – 12 = Year 12 – 13 (16 – 18 year old A-level student)
  • US grade 13 – 16 = Undergraduate university students

This post has a Flesch Kincaid Grade Level score of 8.3, meaning someone with the reading age of a 13-year old could easily understand it.

Read more about these readability tests

Applying the tools

How effective a tool is depends on how you use it. Follow these simple steps to optimise your content for readability:

  1. Consider the likely reading abilities of your average website visitor
  2. Assess your content using the tools above
  3. Modify and reassess as needed

When modifying your content, the following five rules should help you to make it easier to understand.

  • Never use a long/difficult word when a short/simple one will do the job
  • Avoid complex sentence structures and long sentences
  • Avoid passive phrases
  • Deal with one topic per sentence
  • Break up content by using short paragraphs and subheaders

Writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself or try too hard to impress is usually the easiest to understand.

And writing which is easy to understand is writing that sells.

If you want to know more about converting website  traffic into paying customers with your copywriting get in touch.

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