The concept of readability has been explored numerous times through rigorous scientific testing - the bulk of this has focused on print rather than digital media. With the meteoric rise of content marketing in the recent past, we see marketers and linguists turn to readability once again, this time exploring it with an online lens.
George Klare defined readability as “the ease of understanding or comprehension due to the style of writing.” Breaking it down, it can also be explained as the “complexity of words and sentence structure in a piece of content.”
Research on the concept of readability has shown many results, but they all had a consistent theme: shorter words and sentences reduces the reading level of a piece of content, and in turn increases the speed and ease in reading. We can take this one step further by saying that as speed increases and difficulty decreases, we can then expect an increase in engagement; the key metric that content marketers are most interested in.
Brian Scott, a writer for “Lousy Writer” sums up some key reasons why organizations should consider the readability of their content.
His first point states that most Americans (and other English speakers as well) have limited reading ability. Writing in plain English is the best way to mitigate this issue – ensuring that the widest portion of your potential audience will be able to understand it.
The second reason to use readability formulas is if the text is not understood. In this case, all of your hard work in creating it will be wasted and the very point of the piece of content will be defeated. Prospects may not understand the meaning behind your content, disengage and then never return to your website because they have a negative association with it.
With the help of a readability test, organizations can save “time and money that they might have wasted in writing a complicated document” that doesn’t provide value to your target audience. By producing an unreadable text, you drive up costs as the text now needs to be re-written to better suit your target audience.
Search engines look for a reader’s behaviour on a page such as time spent, exit rate, social signals and bounce rates. Paul Allen’s research from 2009 showed that pages that ranked higher in search engine results generally had a lower readability level than pages that were ranked lower. If your page does well in these measures, the search engine will naturally rank your page higher than a page that has low time spent and a high exit rate, for example.
Below are some key data points that may surprise you and dispel some myths surrounding the concept of readability and its importance to content effectiveness.