Why Readability is the Number One Metric to Optimize for in 2018

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If you’re like most marketing or communications professionals, content marketing is central to your strategy.

And with good reason. In 2016, more than 198 million people downloaded ad-blockers. That number is only increasing as people feel more and more inundated by advertising messages.

So you’re right to invest in content creation.

But if you’re not optimizing for readability, you’re missing a trick and losing revenue.

Your website is (hopefully) read by many people

Chances are your website draws a diverse crowd.

You’re most likely driving traffic to your site from multiple channels. Your marketing strategy could be made up of PPC, social, SEO, PR and offline events. Or a combination of these. Either way, you’re speaking to different people via each channel and sending them all to the same place – your website.

This means that your content needs to work hard.

It needs to speak to each person who lands on your website in a way that they can easily digest. If it doesn’t, they’ll immediately bounce off the page. Research shows that the average bounce rate in 2017 was between 41% and 70%.

Ensuring that your content speaks to every person in your audience means optimizing for readability.

What is readability?

Readability describes how easy it is to read and understand a piece of text.

Various factors influence how readable your content is:

  • Jargon – eliminate it
  • Long sentences – keep things short and simple
  • Passive voice – just don’t
  • Plain language – write in plain language
  • Headings and subheadings – help your audience follow your story
  • Cognitive overhead – use simple language that is clear
  • Reading age – most people are comfortable reading content at the level of a grade 8 student

Only 15% of US citizens read at an age commensurate with an undergraduate degree. What’s more, the literacy rate hasn’t improved in the US in the last ten years.

Most content is unwieldy and riddled with jargon. Writing for readability immediately removes these problems.

Pensions – Take a look at this example

Everyone needs a pension, yet a lot of pension provider websites only speak to people who have postgraduate academic qualifications.

Look at this content from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC is a US government agency that provides information to all US citizens.

NOTE: I used VisibleThread Readability for the analysis of this text. It’s a lightweight readability tool for Doc, Web and Text analysis. VisibleThread Readability suggests simple ways to improve readability.

Yet the content on their website speaks exclusively to a small segment of the population with many years of education. (Reference: https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2014/demo/educational-attainment/cps-detailed-tables.html

Writing for readability means that you write for everyone

Most people on the web engage at a lower age level than you might suspect. Its less about dumbing the message down, more about easier engagement.

As far back as 1997, Jakob Nielsen found that 79% of internet users scan the web. Can you imagine how much more proficient people have become at scanning in more recent times?

This is what an internet minute looked like in 2017.

If your content isn’t optimized for readability, your audience will click away from the page and churn.

Jargon and complex language turn people off. Keep your language simple to appeal to a broader audience.

Long sentences are detrimental to your text. Short sentences are easier to skim, and pull visitors into your website.

Use the inverted pyramid – with Plain Language

If your website doesn’t deliver the information your visitors are looking for quickly, and in a clear and concise manner, they will churn.

Keep their attention by making sure your message is front and centre in your content. Get to the point quickly using plain language. And apply the inverted pyramid approach. This means you lead with the most important information first.

Using simple language doesn’t mean dumbing down your content. In fact, writing simply is a skill today’s marketers and communications professionals must learn. You can still speak about complex concepts but convey the point in an accessible style.

People and spiders love readability

You need to strike a universal tone to accommodate all the visitors your website.

And the visitors to your website aren’t just people.

Search spiders, in particular google will also be crawling your website to figure out how it should be ranking on search engines.

The spiders want to ensure that the best information is being served once someone has entered a search query. They don’t want to serve content that isn’t useful.

Using plain language and optimizing your content for readability helps the spiders understand what your site is about.

This greatly enhances your organic and direct traffic.

How to calculate your readability score

It’s easy to calculate your readability score using online tools.

Again, the tool I use is VisibleThread Readability.

You can analyze the content in your Word docs, PDF or your website URL in a couple of clicks.

It calculates your score based on these measures:

  • Readability – using the Flesch Reading test
  • Sentence length – overly long sentences add difficulty to content
  • Passive voice – active voice is stronger
  • Education level – how many years of education would someone need to easily understand your content

The best move you can make in 2018 for your marketing is to focus on readability.

Speak to your customers using plain language and they’ll reward you with their loyalty and
business.


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Author: Fergal McGovern

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