Content marketing is the hot new thing in the wake of Google’s animal themed algorithm updates. Marketers are doubling down on content. Yet, the majority of content on the web is not optimized for readability.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you present it.
What Is Readability?
There are a lot of definitions of readability, some of which stir up a fair amount of debate. My version is aligned with Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, Giles Colborne’s Simple and Usable, the legacy of David Ogilvy and the research of Jakob Nielsen.
Readability is about making your content accessible and comfortable. Never make it a chore.
Readability Improves SEO
If you make your content difficult to read the value of that content goes down. Lack of readability frustrates comprehension and reduces sharing. This, in turn, limits the social echo of your content and lowers the chances of it obtaining organic links.
In short, readability is a valuable but overlooked part of SEO. Here’s my guide to producing readable content.
People Don’t Read, They Scan
The first thing you have to come to grips with is that people are not reading every word. Study after study after study shows that people scan instead of read.
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
That doesn’t mean you should skimp on good writing. Instead, you just need to structure your content with scanning in mind.
Use A Font Hierarchy
One of the better ways to meet that scanning behavior is to use a font hierarchy. Too often I see people using the same font size for their subheads, thinking that a simple bold is going to make the difference. It doesn’t.
If you look back through this blog you’ll see how I figured this out over time. Older posts don’t use a proper font hierarchy and that makes them more difficult to read.
There are some guidelines on the proper ratio for your font hierarchy, but there are so many variables, from the font you’re using to the length of the piece to name just a few. My advice is to use five foot web design to make sure you can read your subheads from a distance. Sometimes I just read my subheads to see if they tell enough of the story by themselves.
I’ve settled on using 14px for body text with a 24px subhead and always want the subheads to be in one line.
Subheads Are Your Friends
The key is to allow people to see the sections of your post at a glance. Make your subheads large enough and descriptive enough so readers can determine whether they’ll actually take the time to read that section word for word.
Use subheads as an advertisement to that section of content.
Subheads are also a great way to logically outline your content. What are the different points and aspects of the topic you’re covering? Most of my blog posts (including this one) start as an outline, which is an asset to creating content that communicates and engages.
Of course you need to use a font face that is legible. Above, I’ve used Chrome’s Developer Tools to change the font on a recent Google blog post to Impact instead of Arial. Impact works on LOLcats when it’s large white text with a black border on a photo background, but using Impact as your body text font? LOL!
There’s a interesting study that shows that the ability to retain information improves when you use unusual fonts. The problem is that people would abandon that content altogether if they weren’t in a controlled setting.
I like (and use) a nice san serif font like Helvetica. But don’t get hung up on the serif versus san serif argument. Research conducted by Alex Poole indicates that it’s likely a matter of personal preference.
So if you like Georgia or Times New Roman, go for it. Sure, there have been some studies that show different fonts produce different reading speeds, but I wouldn’t obsess over it.
Get Line Height Just Right
Legibility is actually the most straight forward part of the equation. Readability is composed of a combination of factors that include the font, size, line height (leading), character spacing (kerning), content width and other typographic variables.
One of the bigger components is line height. Lets look at the same content using different line heights.
The first is too tight, the second too loose. They both frustrate easy reading. I think the line height I use (the third one) is decent. However, I found the golden ratio argument and calculator to be pretty compelling. So maybe I’ll increase my line height slightly.
If you haven’t noticed I’m a big fan of black text on a white background. I’m in the Ogilvy camp on this one. Not only that but I see far too many people using colored fonts with some sort of colored background. Maybe the color palette is yellow and purple but there’s no good reason to have yellow type of a gray background. It’s difficult to read.
Don’t let a style guide get in the way of readability.
I’d rather go with the easy black on white. But if you’re going to start futzing with colors I recommend that you download and use this Contrast Analyzer tool to ensure it passes all of the various color tests.
Highlight The Important Stuff
You want your readers to walk away from your content having learned or at least remembered something, right? Make it easy for readers to find the important stuff by highlighting those points. This could mean bolding those sentences or, you know, actually highlighting them.
The goal is to make sure that the memorable stuff jumps out to the reader.
Use Short Paragraphs
There are studies on this but, isn’t this just common sense? Huge chunks of text are an instant turn-off to readers. For instance, why do you think there are only a few people in the SEO community who read patents? Those things have massive soul-crushing chunks of text that make your eyes cross.
Remember, you’re not reading Jonathan Franzen, that’s a different type of reading. Context is important.
In general, I keep my paragraphs to three to four sentences at most. And I’m never afraid to use one sentence paragraphs if I think it’s an important point I want to get across to readers.
I’m sure many of you might be thinking that long paragraphs are just fine. The right people will read it, the one’s who appreciate the fine art of writing, right? Wrong!
It’s not only your job to write well, but write in a way that is accessible.
When you’re writing, you’re doing so within a mental flow. You’re making a logical argument and linking concepts in prior sentences and paragraphs with those in the current one. But what happens to the reader who is scanning that text? If they haven’t read the paragraph above word for word (or even at all), then those pesky pronouns are completely useless to the reader.
Now, I’m not saying you should remove all pronouns but I do recommend that you go back after you’ve completed your piece and replace those that make sense.
But isn’t that going to make the content stilted? In a word, no.
Using nouns is a more accurate description of your content. You’re creating sign posts for your readers so they know exactly what they’re reading at all times.
Nouns help users and search engines better understand what your content is about.
I also believe in a type of visual osmosis. At a glance you’re able to digest a whole lot of what is on the page without actually reading it. It might be why it’s so difficult for computers to emulate the human evaluation of pages.
Remember too that when you are truly reading, those nouns are visual short codes. You’re not really reading the name of a character in say, Harry Potter, every single time they’re mentioned right? Nouns are a way for you to understand context.
The web is getting more and more visual. Take advantage of that by using images to break up the flow of your content. Not only that, but you can use images to augment the text. You can tell a story or a joke with that image or make a connection for readers that they might not have made through the text.
Do not let me catch you writing content without at least one image. I mean it!
In addition to all of the benefits it has within the content it’s also vital to ensuring that your content is portable. If you’re lucky enough to have your content shared on social networks you must optimize for appearance. Because people scan (yup, again) their news feeds.
If your content doesn’t have a good image, or has a default image like a magnifying glass (I’m looking at you Google) or RSS icon, then the odds of that content being seen, read and shared go down precipitously.
If you work in advertising or design for any amount of time you’ll hear people refer to white space. It’s that part of the page that is left untouched so that the remaining content can breath and shine.
Many websites try to cram as much as they can onto the page leaving very little white space. In fact, the Readability app is a reaction to these overly cluttered environments.
Your banner ad, your timed pop-up, your premium newsletter sign up, your Hello bar, your Greet Box, your social icons and a whole host of others might be distracting users from getting value from your content.
Link Your Paragraphs
I had an English teacher in high school who I absolutely hated. His name was Dr. Flynn. He was a tall, ill-tempered man who would bark out his lessons and become red-faced with rage at our incompetence and insolence.
I remember one week where we had to bring in a topic sentence every day. Each of us had to read our that sentence out loud at the beginning of class.
This was just about getting the topic sentence right, never mind how the first paragraph should detail all of the points you’d cover in the following paragraphs.
But what stuck with me most was the idea that the last sentence in a paragraph should be linked to the first sentence in the next paragraph. There was order and logic to how you constructed a paper or essay.
When I got to college I realized that Dr. Flynn had done me a huge favor. Because a lot of my classmates were clueless. When I mentioned some of the lessons he’d drilled into me, I’d get vacant stares in return. To this day I am still thankful for Dr. Flynn’s lessons.
So whether you call it story telling or creating a logical flow, make sure that you’re linking your paragraphs and sections so that it makes sense to the reader.
Of course there’s also how you write. There are a number of different ways that you can assess the difficulty of a piece of content. How many words are in each sentence? How many syllables are in each word? How many sentences in each paragraph? On and on and on.
There are a number of tests to help assess the reading level of your content. Cloze, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog, Coleman Liau, SMOG and others can all be used to determine an objective reading difficulty. Arienne Holland put together a good list of online readability tools on the Raven Blog.
Your writing should be focused and concise. Now, I don’t always follow this advice. Many of my blog posts are a bit long and I do indulge in some word play from time to time.
I tend to believe that my personality comes through via my writing and it’s that type of authenticity that is compelling to readers. However, I do edit myself quite a bit, chopping whole chunks of text that, while enjoyable to have written, are superflous in nature.
And I rely heavily on other forms of readability to make up for this deficiency. So, do as I say, not as I do in this instance.
Readability is an overlooked part of SEO. Those who embrace readability will have a leg up as content marketing becomes more and more important. Because great content isn’t great unless it gets read.
(Thanks to Micah France for introducing me to Simple and Usable and to Rand Fishkin for inspiration.)