WHY IS READABILITY IMPORTANT? (SPOILER: IT ISN'T)

introduction

It’s such an easy trap to fall into – when you first learn about readability, you can trick yourself into thinking that it’s massively important to your SEO. Everyone says Google includes readability in its algorithm, and SEMrush (a popular SEO tool) uses the Flesch Reading Ease score to judge your pages’ readability. So, a more readable page must be better, right? Well…

First of all, using the Flesch Reading Ease score to judge readability is thoroughly infuriating bad. (This is neither here nor there, but it’s my blog and I want to rant). Let’s explore why.

Flesch Reading Ease Score

WHAT IS THE FLESCH READING EASE SCORE?

I’m glad you asked, H2. The Flesch Reading Ease Score is a system that ranks how easy your text is to read. It takes the average number of words in your sentences, and the average number of syllables per word, and turns them into a number. The higher your number, the more readable your text is. 

This is the calculation maths, just for your edification for your enlightenment FYI:

Or, to put it another way:

In English, please?

Basically, short sentences and short words, good. Long sentences and long words, bad. In fact, long words, very, very bad. Much worse than long sentences. 

For reference, when it comes to readability, best practice is that 60 is a good score to aim for, and 40 is the absolute lowest that’s acceptable (for instance, if you’re writing on a particularly complex topic).

The fault with this is that it deems all short words a cinch. Simultaneously, any multisyllabic lexemes represent impassable barriers restricting effortless comprehension.

Confused Reader

And admittedly, sometimes they are. But compare these two sentences: 

“Santa has placed many pretty little yellow boxes around the tree because today is Christmas.”

And

“Saint Nick posed a slew of quaint wee gilt chests at close range to the shrub as hic et nunc is Yule.”

 

Obviously these are extreme examples, but sentence 1 got a Flesch Reading Ease score of 47.6, while sentence 2 got 95.2. 

This is despite the fact that sentence 1 was made of some of the most commonly-spoken oft-used words in English, while sentence 2 sounds like it was bitten by a radioactive Oxford English Dictionary.

But, according to Flesch, because the second sentence has fewer syllables per word than the first, it’s easier to read, so it gets a higher score. Even though it uses Latin. Yes.

This is clearly nonsense, but even when I’m not being facetious daft, writing everything to get a higher score can ruin the flow of your text, and make it a hellish experience to read.

SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIGH READABILITY?

It turns out, a page of copy consisting almost entirely of one-syllable words reads… bad.

An Example

It’s fine to write in just short words for a bit. It can make a page fly by in the right hands. But when it goes on for too long it can start to grate. You may not spot it at first, but as you read on you feel that the words used are picked more to be short than to make the prose read well. It’s not too in-your-face, but things aren’t right. 

Some words start to be seen more and more. Words that would fit more well are not there. And as you read on, you feel like the guy who wrote the blog thinks you’re not that smart.

The site may have a brand voice, but there is no sign of it on this page.  All of the words and turns of phrase that meant this site was not the same as the one up or down from it on the search page are gone. As you read in your head, the whole thing drags, and as time goes on, it starts – at a slow but set pace – to drive you to dis…traction.

Headache Meme

This clunky writing is an extreme version of what happens if you put all your focus on readability. SEMrush tells you to make on-page copy more readable, because that’s what it thinks all the best-ranking pages are doing.

However, SEMrush is much less scientific than it would have you believe. It will look for short phrases that the top 10 pages have in common, and suggest you add them to your page. If the top-ranking pages for a search term have videos, your page better have a video, too!

The same goes for readability. It doesn’t matter that your page is a blog that explains complicated concepts in detail, and you’re competing with others that are just listing items for sale. According to SEMrush, Google’s algorithm don’t want none unless you got a high readability score, son.

But Do we see that in search results?

This is a snapshot of the top 10 pages for four different keywords we are trying to rank for:

Ranking Pages

As you can see, our readability is easily within the bounds of the top 10 for each keyword. If each group of 11 was ranked for readability, we’d be 5th, 3rd, 2nd and 2nd.

If readability was so important, we would be on the first page of results for each, provided we weren’t talking about some completely unrelated topic. Instead, as it stands, we’re 20th, 12th, 27th, and one page isn’t even in the top 100 pages for its search term.

Readability won’t get you top 10

Not only that, but readability isn’t even enough to give you a better ranking once you’re in the top 10. For the third row of readability score, the page ranking in 3rd place has a score of 25, while 10th place scored more than double that, with 61.

I went and found the page in the third row that scored 25. Unsurprisingly, the writing was needlessly complicated, and there were several random double spaces in the middle of sentences. Yet, despite all this, the page ranked 3rd in the UK for a keyword that gets over 480 searches a month. Clearly, readability is far from a kingmaker.

In fact, according to a study by Portent, there is absolutely no correlation between readability and ranking.

SO, is READABILITY useless?

If you’re looking for quick results and to boost your search ranking now, readability isn’t worth it. Spending time hunting through your landing pages and blogs, search-and-destroying any word above 4 syllables is pointless.

However, with that being said, it’s not worth abandoning readability completely. What readability can do is throw up a red flag that what you’ve written may be a little over-the-top.

Your 4000 word, multi-page epic of a blog, explaining the intricacies of your client’s most sophisticated piece of equipment in breathless detail may be the culmination of your life’s work. You may have filled your sentences with subclause after subclause. Double-entendres abound. You’re particularly proud of that one paragraph where you rather cleverly compared the action of a pressure release valve to a concert pianist’s metronome.

But…

…if you chuck it into Readable (or Grammarly, or Hemingway App… your choice) and you get a Flesch Reading Ease Score that’s in the negatives, I can promise you: Nobody will want to read your copy. They’ll just leave after struggling through a couple of sentences. 

This, in turn, will tank your page dwell time. You won’t draw anyone towards a conversion. No one will share your blog, so you won’t get any backlinks, and no reader will want to explore your site to find more of your content.

Brevity and Readability

Writing complex sentences and using complicated words does not make you a good writer, or even smart. Any 13-year-old with a thesaurus can make a sentence that’s full to bursting with words unseen outside of a 19th century Postgraduate thesis. That’s not smart, it’s pretentious

You aren’t above your audience, and if you write like it, the only readers you’ll have left will be tedious bores who think they’re smart because they don’t need a dictionary to double-check “junoesque”, “pulchritudinous” or “usufruct”.

A good writer can make a complex idea so simple anyone can understand it, and so engaging no one will forget it.

Learn from the greats

The Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway was often criticised for his simple writing. In fact, fellow Nobel Laureate William Faulkner lamented that, 

He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.” 

When this criticism reached Hemingway’s ears, this was his response:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Hemingway Readability

Readability might not impact your ranking, but what it will do is make your content easy to digest. It should leave your reader more informed than they were before.

They should want to read more, increasing your page dwell time. They will want to find more that you’ve written, and will go looking for it on the same website, reducing your bounce rate. They may even share it, creating backlinks for you. And it’s here, not with the algorithm, that the value of readability to SEO shines.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

At this point in time, when it comes to Google’s algorithm, it seems like readability has gone the same way as bounce rate. And I, for one, welcome this.

Writing solely for the sake of readability is a great way to find yourself abandoning important details like brand voice – or even clarity. And what for? Slightly increasing a number that has little to no impact on your search ranking. That seems like a bad trade.

Instead, place your focus on making your copy engaging, and ensuring it fits with your brand voice. If you can provide a good reading experience, and your content is relevant to your SERP title, you’ll never struggle for readers.

Like astrologers and Manchester United, Readability is now one of those things people still place a lot of importance on, but which aren’t really relevant any more. 

If it helps you from making your sentences horribly long and convoluted, fine. But its tyrannical reign as the gatekeeper to the promised land of high rankings is over. Thank God.

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