What do pigs and great blog posts have in common? (Don’t pretend you’re not tracking with me here.) They’re both easily consumable. And when it comes to the latter, a strong focus on online readability will help you cook up some crisp content bacon.
And that’s important.
Today, web content is playing an even greater role in how we build community, foster loyalty and drive action. So, if you make your readers happy, they’ll surely come back for more.
Why is online readability so important?
Say you’re like me (and my money says you are): When I look for answers on the web, I expect writers to serve them to me on a silver platter.
Lets say I search for “sweet potato bacon recipe” or “Pacific colonization and pigs.” When the search engine serves up a long list of results, I do a quick scan and click the first to closely match my query.
I’m excited. I’m craving bacon and knowledge, and I’m about to be satisfied. Right?
When the page loads, I’m often staring down long, unbroken blocks of copy. I’m supposed to wade through this mess? 9 times out of 10, I’m instantly frustrated and exit the page.
And this is what you need to avoid: abandonment of your content.
So, the message is simple: As your reader, I need to be lead down a well-lit trail in my search for information.
It’s your job to get me there.
How can you support your readers?
Prioritize key elements of readability
It’s not rocket science. Successful web content will be:
- Easy to read
- Easy to scan
Making readability a priority in the design process is also crucial. From font selection and content width to line height (leading) and character spacing (kerning), your designer plays a critical role when it comes to delivering a positive user experience.
Now, I’m not a designer, so I’ll leave that commentary to the experts. You can learn more about it here, though.
Okay, ready to dig in?
Understand online reading behavior, first
We don’t read online information in the same way we would if we were curled up on the couch with a good book.
Online, we’re 8-year old kids, post-Halloween candy haul; the wheels are churning at breakneck-speed and our attention spans are limited. So, when we click a link, we absolutely, positively can’t feel overwhelmed.
We need the writer to assure us that we’ll get what we’re searching for, and we’ll get it easily.
Usability expert, Jakob Nielsen conducted the seminal research on how people read online and his eye tracking studies demonstrated that we don’t read each and every word. Instead, we scan content in an F-shaped pattern, spending 80% of our time on page skimming content “above the fold,” or what’s immediately viewable without scrolling. We also spend 69% of our time with our eyes glued to the left half of the web page.
Understanding those reading patterns means you can position your key messages where they’re more likely to be captured.
Write scannable content
You can make your readers’ search for information simple:
- Share important information first. Don’t expect your audience to commit without putting your value up-front. Attention is most concentrated in the upper portion of your post, so writing in an inverted pyramid style will help hook your readers. Remember, they have web-induced ADD, so deliver your key messages ASAP.
- Use subheads. We know people scan subheads as they search for relevant information, so use them to guide your readers. Remember, you’re working with limited attention spans, so keep them short and to the point.
- Front load keywords. When readers scan your content, they tend to focus on the left side of the page. So, help them out by leading with key phrases. That will help signal when they’ve found the information they’re looking for.
- Lists, lists, and more lists. A blog post that’s copy-heavy can overwhelm your readers. So, present that same information in a more scannable format by using ordered and unordered lists.
- Give your readers’ brains some breathing room. Long blocks of copy also intimidate readers, so keep paragraphs short. When you break long paragraphs out into several smaller ones, you’ll find that the added unused white space will immediately make your piece feel more manageable.
- Make key points pop. If you only capture a reader for a minute or two and they’re skimming your blog post quickly, will they leave with any important takeaways? You can improve your chances by drawing attention to the most important points in your piece. Use bold and italics to capture eyeballs. Just remember not to overuse them: when everything’s important, nothing’s important.
Okay, so we’re making progress here–our content is easy to scan.
But wait, there’s more!
Keep it simple, stupid
When you’re writing online content, don’t forget to KISS.
If you make your readers work too hard, they’re likely to look for answers elsewhere. (I would.) So, simplify your message—without dumbing it down. That alone, will help satisfy your readers’ desire to intake information quickly.
Remember these three keys:
- Simple sentence structure. Complicated, compound sentences can tire your reader and create a barrier to comprehension. Limit your use of them.
- Plain language. Reading your copy should be painless. If readers are struggling with comprehension and reaching for their dictionary… Oh, wait; they won’t do that. They’ll exit your page. So, save your Word of the Day calendar doozies for your Sunday afternoon Scrabble game.
- Write for your reader. Recent search engine algorithm updates are rewarding strong content, but applying SEO best practices is still important. Just remember that if your primary focus is on keyword optimization, your readability will suffer. It’s that simple. You write for people first, complex algorithms and clusters of computers second.
So, now that you’ve written your first blog post, did you get it right? Is your message easy to grasp?
Readability tools can help you determine how difficult it will be for your audience to wade through your post.
There are two tests commonly used in the writing world: the Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. Both use a mathematical formula that measures word and sentence length to score text comprehension.
The Flesch Reading Ease test scores on a scale of 0-100, with high scores being the easiest to read (think Dick & Jane):
90-100 : Very Easy
80-89 : Easy
70-79 : Fairly Easy
60-69 : Standard
50-59 : Fairly Difficult
30-49 : Difficult
0-29 : Very Confusing
For general audiences, aiming for the Standard Reading Ease range of 60-69 is a good goal.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level goes a step further. It translates the Flesch Reading Ease score into the years of education a reader will needed to fully comprehend your writing.
Again, when writing for general audiences, keep it fairly simple. Target a 6th-8th grade reading level.
Of course, it’s important to really know your audience and write “where they’re at.” If you’re reaching out to a more sophisticated demographic on niche topics, those scores can rise. The New York Times, for example, caters to educated professionals and its news stories often score between grade levels 10 and 11.
Try out these readability tools
If you’re writing in Microsoft Word, the tool is already built into your software.
- Click Tools
- Select Spelling and Grammar from the dropdown menu
- Click Options
- Check Show readability statistics
Then, when you run the Spelling and Grammar tool, Word will display your readability scores.
Does your site run on WordPress? We love the Yoast SEO plugin—and it includes the Flesch-Kincaid readability tool, as well.
*Disclaimer: These tools should not rule your writing, but rather serve as one in a number of factors that guide your revisions.
Of course, the “answer” to great online content can’t be found in a tool. Rather, it lies in the not-so-magic formula of brevity and clear focus.
So, embrace these tips and start writing. Go hog wild.
Because everyone knows great content makes everything better.