Can You Read This Verisimilitudinous Title?
Why does readability matter to your website?
Because attention is an endangered species online.
Have you noticed? It’s tough enough to drive people to your website, but once they’re there, you have to keep them engaged––because otherwise, they’ll jet. Log in to your Google Analytics and check your “bounce rate” (i.e., the percentage of your visitors who leave your site without visiting more than one page). Or check out the average site visit length.
But you don’t need Analytics to tell you that we have miniscule patience on the Internet. Our scrolling fingers are strong, our focus is weak.
So! It’s absolutely vital that, in those precious moments that someone lands on your website, we draw them in with language, that we paint pictures with words––and that our users understand every. single. word.
(Note: Images and videos are about a billion times more engaging than text when it comes to hooking a user's attention, but actually making use of that attention––i.e., communicating key information––still is most efficiently done with words. This will change as video becomes more ubiquitous to the average organization.)
The good news: Online success is found in these margins. Organizations that are thoughtful about, and considerate of, their audiences will grab the audience, while their more obtuse and stubborn competitors just plod along.
After great information architecture and compelling visual design, the readability of your website’s text is paramount.
How is reading level determined?
There are about a dozen famous formulas for measuring the “readability” of a chunk of text. But the one you’ve probably most often encountered (without knowing it) is the Flesch-Kincaid Index, which looks like this:
This formula produces a number, usually somewhere between 0 and 100. But here’s the catch, the higher this number, the lower the corresponding grade level. In other words, a book that scores a 92 on the Flesch-Kincaid Index is a children’s book, aimed at 11-year-old kids. Meanwhile, the Harvard Business Review scores in the low 30s, which translates to the 12th grade.
This is, more or less, the formula built into Microsoft Word and a bunch of other word processing software. (To check the reading level of your Word document, follow these instructions.)
Fun fact: Rudolph Flesch, of the Flesh-Kincaid Index, helped American newspapers radically change how they wrote, and in a few years during the 1950s and 60s, newspapers dropped from a 16th-grade reading level down to 11th.
In fact, by law and business policies, many official documents are required to be written at the 9th-grade level (the average American’s level).
How people read
The literacy of Americans hasn’t changed much since it was studied during the 1920s and 30s. National literacy studies in the last decade have reaffirmed a few truths:
The average American reads at a 9th-grade level (the equivalent of a 15-year-old)
Recreationally, people enjoy reading at two grade-levels below their reading level. (Which is why Twilight has about a 7th-grade reading level.)
Reading two grades above your reading level causes cognitive strain, and anything beyond that, comprehension plummets.
For you, these facts have a few obvious implications:
If your website’s audience has an average reading level of, say, 7th grade, then you’ll want to ensure your web copy falls between 5th and 9th grades. Lower than 5th and your copy becomes almost insulting, above 9th and your audience will lose your meaning (and likely leave your site).
There’s a decent chance that your copy is written at too high a grade level. Why? Because you wrote it! And because you know your work––your industry––better than most people, you likely fell victim to using jargon or, worse yet, needlessly fancy words. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but one that is easily corrected.
But most important of all: More readable text results in greater comprehension, longer time spent reading, and more recall. In other words, readability works.
How to determine your audience’s reading level
If you can, survey them. Surveys are a surprisingly effective way to engage your audience, and when you have the opportunity to slip in a “What’s your highest level of education?” question, you probably should? Which isn’t to say that this reveals reading level precisely––after all, how many of us know a college grad who seems to write emails like a junior high kid?---but it’s a start.
And really, you probably can make an educated guess about your audience’s reading level. (Or audiences, plural––as many organizations have a variety of audiences with diverse backgrounds.) Make that educated guess, then respond accordingly. Although you may be surprised at what passes for 9th-grade reading level; it’s probably even simpler than you’d guess.)
How to adjust your website copy for your audience
There are online tools and thesauruses, but don’t bother. Simply reduce the size of your words––their literal size. Shorter words. And shorter sentences, too. Speak in brief, to-the-point clips. Avoid run-on sentences and embellished vocabulary.
There are exceptions to the “simplify your copy” approach, of course. You may have a highly literate audience for whom you should craft richer copy. (We have a number of engineering firms as TradeMark clients, and their audiences are often off-the-charts smart.) Or maybe you’re trying to evoke a certain tone by utilizing fancier words, maybe because that’s part of your “brand.”
But when you’re trying to stir your audience to action online––as you are, probably, most of the time––focus first and foremost on how clear, compelling, and readable your instructions are.
If you take only two things from this article, I hope they are:
The average American reads at a 9th-grade reading level, and you should aim most of your website’s content at this grade level (which you can do, automatically, online or in your word processing program).
But above all else, get as clear a picture as possible of your audiences’ literacy level and meet them precisely where they are.
And if you were wondering, this article has an Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.4---or the 4th month of the 8th year of education. Not too shabby, eh?
Want to read more?
The Wikipedia article on Readability is chock full of fascinating insights into the history of readability.