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Does Reading Level Matter in SEO?

Posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 by Print This Post Print This Post

Categories - SEO

Below are a statement (from Ted Ives) and a response (from David Waterman) on the concept of reading level as it relates to SERP rankings. Enjoy!

A statement from Ted (a wise man)Ted Ives

While it’s unclear whether Google utilizes reading level of web pages as an organic ranking factor explicitly, reading level clearly matters if you give it just a little thought. There are various methods of computing the reading level of a page, with pluses and minuses to each, but my favorite is the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, which takes into account the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word, and combines these two ratios to come up with an American grade level equivalent. A Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 8 simply means you need to be reading at an average 8th grade education level to understand the document.

Below is an analysis of a particular web page (that will remain nameless) versus the top 10 pages that rank highly for “debt consolidation”.

flesch kincaid, reading levels, and google rankings

The analysis shows that for the target web page, its calculated grade level is 5; while high-ranking web pages for the desired term have a grade level of 6 (some of the other measures show a difference of one grade level as well). The obvious takeaway would be to rewrite the content to include longer sentences and longer words, but does grade level really matter?

It absolutely matters because, if the grade level is too high (i.e. the document is too hard to read), users will come to the web page and many of them will immediately leave and search for another document that is easier to read. Conversely, if the document is written at too low a grade level, it is probably “speaking down” to the end user who may see it as not providing enough value for them to accomplish their goal – and will immediately leave it as well after a quick scan. Thus the web page will have a high “bounce rate” relative to its competition – and Google very likely uses that bounce rate as an important factor in organic ranking.

So when you are analyzing your content from an organic ranking perspective, don’t just worry about keyword density and related words – measure your content’s reading level and make sure you are writing content at an appropriate level for your target audience.

Now a response from David (a Waterman)David Waterman-Content Optimization

Two people couldn’t agree more. If I had to put money on it, my bet would be on content reading level contributing to rankability. I’d also put a side bet on the thought that “ideal reading level” (at least according to the search engines) is different from topic to topic.

For example, if you’re writing content on the components of business intelligence and data warehousing, you’d have to assume that the search engines will expect this piece of content to have a high reading level.

However, if you’re writing a piece on Paris Hilton at the MTV Music Awards, you’d have to assume that the reading level would be…well…you get the idea.

In any case, just from a logical standpoint, having reading level as a ranking factor among the search engines just makes sense. It’s a good way to match the right content with the right audience. Of course you could make the argument that not all business intelligence content should have a high reading level (e.g. intro pieces/fundamentals of business intelligence/etc.), but then you’d also have to think that there are probably “trigger” words which might reduce the expected reading level of content written on certain topics…words like “Fundamentals” or “Basics” or “How to”. Of course we don’t know for sure if such triggers, or even if reading level, is one of the top factors of rankability.  But it does make you wonder what “trigger” words would increase the expected reading level of an article on Paris Hilton.

About David Waterman

David Waterman of The Search Agency+ works in SEO, Content Development and Online Marketing, at The Search Agency - 11150 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 600 Los Angeles, CA 90064 as a Director of SEO/Search Marketing - Website: http://www.thesearchagency.com

David Waterman+ manages all SEO efforts for an assortment of clients. He has over 8 years of Search Engine Optimization experience with a specific emphasis on content optimization and website taxonomy/organization. He sets strategy for a wide array of top-tier clients in various industries and has experience managing international search marketing teams and servicing international clients. In his spare time he enjoys going to garage sales and swap meets in search of vintage and collectible items.



23 Responses to “Does Reading Level Matter in SEO?”

  1. Good discussion.

    I definitely agree that bounce rate and time on site (page) are considered by Google as important factors.

    As these most probably correlate with interest / understanding of on-page content (both of which Google can easily measure), it would be interesting to know the relative Google algorithm weighting of each of these factors against a complete content analysis of the page content (a more difficult endeavor IMHO).

  2. Readability makes sense as a ranking factor – as Grant says above (and the article indicates), it’s going to be linked to bounce rate.

    It’s also got to be a fairly good indicator of whether a site’s been keyword stuffing. If you cram a load of keywords into your text, that readability level is going to rise and rise.

  3. I had never thought of this before. Flesch-Kincaid is an easy algorithm for search engines to work into their mega-algorithm. It doesn’t even have to be as complex as different levels 6 vs 7 vs 8 for different topics. If a certain topic requires longer words, for example, all pages competing for related searches will be using those longer words. Since rankings are relative, it would not matter if they were all equally affected by a one-size-fits-all readability algorithm.

    Many web pages have very little text, and not necessarily even sentences, so there is no need for the search engines to pay attention to the low end. They could simply add a dampening factor for anything over 9, for example. So readability would be a very simple addition to the overall ranking algorithm.

    Even if readability does not factor directly into ranking algorithms, I agree that it will affect bounce rates, and I am thoroughly convinced that bounce rates are part of their algorithms. I simply cannot believe that the search engines would ignore several bounce-related signals that expressly tell them whether the searcher is satisfied with the results they served him. It would be like a convenience store owner turning a blind eye to what people are buying and leaving the rat poison on the display up front and the chocolate bars somewhere on a shelf in the back.

  4. SEO Lamp says:

    hmmmmmmmm. Now here’s the next logical question (from any black hat SEO, current or recoverying)……CAN a high bounce rate as a result of poor content/bad reading level be overcome by enticing “non text” content. In other words, if I have content that’s obviously in place for the search engines, BUT I have a video or picture(s) that are entertaining to watch and help keep the viewer on the page, could this overcome a high bounce rate as a result of poor content? I’d have to imagine it definitely can (to a certain degree). So in that case, I’d have to think that Google takes a look at everything separately AND in combination. Meaning if you don’t have a high bounce rate BUT your content has an inadequate reading level grade (according to Google), you only got half the exam correct. hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

  5. Paul says:

    Great article. Poor content identified by readability tests could drive users away from a webpage. Google could therefore think, “this user has bounced from the page, the content must be poor lets push the page down the rankings” or the content could be measured according to readability metrics built into Google and judged prior to any user feedback. I’d imagine it’s a mix of both.

    I’ve just written an article on exactly the same thing, which is a coincidence! Why don’t you measure the Flesch Reading Ease of this page and compare it to mine? Then see who outranks who?!




  6. Paul says:

    Oh another thing I picked up from my research, there was a stronger correlation between Flesch Reading Ease and a high ranking than with F/K grade level.


  7. Magnificent blog post about search engine optimization. I’m honestly startled that that has not been told earlier.

  8. jasmin live says:

    Took me awhile to read all the comments, but I really love the article. It proved to be very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also engaged! I’m sure you had fun writing this article.

  9. Couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting isn’t it that increasingly whatever works for the audience, also works for the search engine. Know the words your reader would use and you are sorted!

  10. Thanks,

    This is a great article and a great website. I liked it very much. It will help me to optimise my websites in europe. I have website in travel and that meens a lot of seo work !!

    Thanks a lot and greetings,

    Dave and Carol
    Seo and Travel Website in Europe, France

  11. This is probably one of the best posts I have come across on this subject. Have you looked into the opposite side of the argument of travel tips? Personally, I think a solid argument could be made either way, but let me know if you know of more sources on the Web to verify what you are proposing.

  12. Suzanne says:

    The problems with the Flesch scales are that neither takes into account the word order or syntax of the writing. If you take a sentence, jumble the words to make it basically meaningless, you would have the exact same Flesch-Kincaide Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease result. Take my first sentence and move some of the words around (or “juxtaposition” them if you want to raise your FKGL). :)

    “The the Flesch scales are problems with that it does order or syntax of the not take into account the word piece.”

    Copy and paste both my first sentence and the one above into a Word document and you will get the same score. One sentence makes sense while the other is complete nonsense. Same scores for both.

    See my point. (I could the phrase, “this illustrates my point”…but, it all depends on the sophistication needed for the purpose of the writing)

    Additionally,the clarity of the writing ususally increases reading ease, yet, this sentence alone would be another example of the flaws in the FRE or the FKGL. I used a “graphic organizer” in the word “additionally”. It is a method taught to young writers to function as a transition from concept to concept. Think about the formulas’ results if I had used “Plus” instead. Or if instead of “yet” as my coordinating conjunction, I used “however”. More sylables equals higher grade level or increased difficulty. It leaves out the idea that a transition makes the reader better able to understand movement from one point to another, increasing clarity.

    Lastly, the use of more “sensitive” words in terms of vocabulary should not be discounted for the sake reducing reading ease. Words have shades of meaning, connotations associated with them, some indicating subtle differences that a reader will recognize, or simply more accurate for the writer’s purpose. (“He stole the purse” or “He liberated the purse from its owner.” As a writer telling a story about someone stealing a purse, my words in the second sentence would have a kinder, softer, more sympathetic approach to the offender. Most readers would be able to determine that, but it would be “harder” to read the second sentence according to the FRE or the FKGL.

    These should not be used in objectivity as tools to improve writing. They are simply a basic, basic, basic (can I be more plain) approach.

    • Suzanne says:

      oops…goofed… in my sentence “Lastly, the use of more “sensitive” words in terms of vocabulary should not be discounted for the sake reducing reading ease.”

      it should be “for the sake of INCREASING reading ease”…see, this also makes my point. Both sentences have the same score since both words have the same number of syllables (and I misspelled syllables) so they would have the same scores. One makes more sense than the other… 😉

      See what happens when you don’t proof-read even on a blog… :)
      I’m just saying…

      • Suzanne says:

        I am terrible at this tonight…missed a word “use” in “I could the phrase,”

        Any other problems will just have to lower the ease at which any of you can find my meaning.

  13. Synthia Borlace says:

    Great flowchart. What about post-launch activities, such as maintenance, CMS training, reporting etc?

  14. Gerardo Lindburg says:

    When searching for SEO companies to optimize your website in order to achieve higher rankings, always get several 3rd party references and case studies before hiring them. Also they should be able to explain exactly which methods they employed in order to achieve these rankings.

  15. Devin says:

    If the reading level affects ranking, and “the ideal reading level is different from topic-to-topic”, how would one develop the ‘control’ or base for each topic to determine if a site is at the optimal reading level (or too high or low)?

  16. I just downloaded the yoast SEO tool and it exposed me to the reading ease test. Since my topic is business school admissions I’m not sure how easy I should really be targeting. My pages generally range from the 50s to high 70s.

  17. Mike says:

    We had a big discussion about this last night, and came to the conclusion that it would be weird if they didn’t use some kind of readability scoring in their indexing. Thanks for the nicely written article that I might link to later.


  1. SearchCap: The Day In Search, November 17, 2009
  2. Weekly Search & Social Coverage: 11/24/09 | Search Engine Journal
  3. Twitted by WebmasterFormat
  4. Resource for Checking Your SEO Content Readability | Search Engine Journal

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