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Use Google Reading Level to Improve Your Blog Message

This guest post is by Rhys Wynne of the Winwar Media Blog.

Last month, Google launched its new Google Reading Level feature. What this does is algorithmically work out the reading level of the search results, to help users more easily decide which search results to click on.

How is it worked out?

Like everything with Google, I’m not entirely sure how Reading Level is calculated. I do know that teachers were paid to grade web pages, and an algorithm was worked out using that data.

There’s been a bit of debate in cases where examples of queries (such as the trashy UK talent show “X Factor” having an “Advanced” readership) don’t necessarily mix with the content, but I think that the following factors determine whether a piece of copy is basic:

  • short sentences and paragraphs
  • common, non techincal words, acronyms, and phrases (using the phrase “http” rather than “Hypertext Transfer Protocol”, for example)
  • possibly even page structure—the use of headers, bullet points, and so on.

Using more technical phrases, longer sentence structure, and creative writing techniques such as hyperbole may cause your writing to be ranked as more “Advanced.”

How can you access Google’s Reading Level for your blog?

To view your blog’s reading level, go to Google’s Advanced Search (the hyperlink is located next to the search box on Google’s home page). Type your search query in the first form box—the one annotated with “all these words”—and make sure that the Reading Level drop-down box shows “annotate results with reading levels”. You should see the results for my old blog’s home page below:

Reading Level is calculated on a page-by-page basis, so if I take the page for my WP Email Capture plugin (which caters to a more technical audience), its results show as follows:

Using Reading Level to improve your blog

The ways in which you can use Reading Level to improve your blog will depends on your blog itself. Generally speaking, you want to keep it as simple as possible to make it accessible as possible—be it creative writing, a how-to post, or a sales page. Having a high basic rating is generally a good thing, but obviously you don’t want to patronize your audience by speaking to them like they’re three years old.

Ironically, by maintaining a simple language form, you can actually end up complicating things. For example, if I was to explain my day job to the computer-illiterate in a way they would understand, I would describe it like this:

“My day job is that I’m somebody who spends time writing, sending emails, and working on websites in order to help push them up to the top of the first page of the search engines, hopefully leading to more people seeing the website.”

To you, I’d say this:

“I work as an SEO.”

Immediately you know what my day job is, as many bloggers know what an SEO does (or rather, should do). The previous education of your readers is important too, but how can you find that out? Well, you can find that out by using Google’s Reading Level feature again.

Attracting the right audience for your blog

Instead of searching for the reading level of your readers, instead search for the reading level of competing sites. Search for your competitors’ blogs and also for keywords that your blog’s associated with. Searching for the phrase “beginner blogging tips” shows this reading level as heavily basic. Problogger shows a more advanced reading level:

Therefore if Darren wanted to attract more new bloggers, he would write in a similar style to his Blogging Tips for Beginners page (which does rank in the top ten):

Ultimately, though, your readers are you best source of feedback. If you are constantly having to explain terms in post comments or over email, you should tone down the complexity of your writing, which will lower your Reading Level ranking. If, however, your readers respond with intelligent comments, you may be able to write in a more advanced style. Just ensure that not too many people are left scratching their heads when they visit your blog.

What’s your Reading Level? Are you happy with that, or do you think you need to tweak it?

Rhys Wynne is an eight-year blogger, four-year professional search engine optimizer, and occassional professional wrestler. He is the senior writer and editor on the Winwar Media Blog, where he shares his thoughts on SEO, social media, and WordPress tips. Subscribe to their free blogging newsletter today.

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Comments

  1. When writing how-to style posts I aim to make my writing as simple to understand, though quite often it also depends upon the readers. I think there’s something to learn from the news and other media outlets who mostly use language an 8-year old can understand – unless you have a really specific audience, then you should aim to make it suitable for as many readers as possible.

  2. John Morrow says:

    This is a great article, thanks. I often struggle with the fact that I tend to write longer, more complicated sentences. This sounds like a great tool for me.

    John

  3. satish says:

    roger that

  4. I tell my readers to keep their writing simple, because some people out there are not going to be on their level of reading..simple means more readers for your blog..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  5. Thanks for the post Rhys. Always good to hear about new tools. I don’t think I’ll be using this to help me however because if i start to focus to much on my style to fit into this framework the best it might detract from the quality of my content. When writing I enjoy being able to write how I like and hopefully everyone who reads my material will think the same.

    • Sarah Arrow says:

      ” I don’t think I’ll be using this to help me however because if i start to focus to much on my style to fit into this framework the best it might detract from the quality of my content.”

      That has been my fear with using these kinds of tools in the past. Although I try to keep it at teen level, and trust me when I say I am not blogging deep and meaningful topics – transport related stuff usually, I find it converts to better action to write to the slightly older reader rather than the catch all college level writing.

  6. Having tested out my blog I can happily report that it is 0% advanced.

  7. corey says:

    This is another aspect of accessibility. First it comes from making our websites accessible for all users, and now we should be making our content accessible for all users. Whatever we do online, we must keep the end user in mind.
    Good info and thanks for bringing it to our attention.
    -Corey

  8. Doug says:

    Is there a way to use this to get the reading level for your specific pages rather than as a modifier for search results?

    • Andy Merrett says:

      If the web page in question is indexed in Google already, you can just put the URL into the search box and, presuming you have already switched on the Reading Level feature, it will display the reading level just beneath the title link.

      You can also get an overview of your site by using the site: modifier, but this will only show pages that are indexed by Google.

      It would be great if Google could add this to Webmaster Tools so you don’t have to search for a particular page in this way.

      • Thanks for the tip, Rhys.

        To co-sign on Andy’s comment… you can get the reading level of your entire site by entering a search term like this:

        site:whoisbolaji.com

        But you’ll want to do it from the “Advanced Search” interface, so you can change the reading level parameter to “annotate results with reading levels”.

        I took a screencap of my results – my blog apparently is 95% basic, 4% intermediate.
        http://screencast.com/t/G57CADcAHEg

        Thanks again, Rhys.

      • Doug says:

        Thanks for the replies. Yeah, I have very mixed results. I put in a URL that was indexed but did not have a reading level. If I do a site: search, Only about half of the indexed pages have the reading level info, so they are probably still rolling this out and analyzing the pages as they are newly spidered, or something to that effect.

        • Andy Merrett says:

          Ahh that would make some sense – I just took a quick glance at the top pages in the results, which are probably Google’s best ranked as it is.

          It looks like you have to go back to “Advanced search” after a while – I did do a simple search later after setting the option, and it showed the levels, but later on it didn’t. Oh well :)

  9. Akos says:

    I publish posts for everyone. I don’t really care how advanced is the person who reads my blog… because I’m always happy if a reader hits my blog and reads my articles. But I know that if I specify my audiance I will get far more better results on planet internet and I can make more money.
    So I think overall this new Google service is worth checking out.

    P.S.: Great post. Very well written.

  10. Mike Lopez says:

    Hmmm, this a new tool for me. Haven’t heard of it until now. Interesting and definitely worth to look into. I wonder how my blog would fair. LOL.

  11. Greg says:

    Thanks for the info. Now I’m off to get the results for my blogs. If I see anything odd I will be back to pick your brain.

  12. Jane says:

    Hmm.. a great and a different thing I am hearing about. I have not thought about writing at different levels so far. But ya, you made the point.

    I would prefer to try to strike the right balance between being too advanced and too basic. I want readers from both the extremes.

    Thanks for the insight Rhys.

    Jane.

  13. Ugh. I’m screwed. Basic – 9, Intermediate – 37, Advanced 53. With the number of times I say “y’all” I don’t see how it’s getting this. *snaps fingers* Darn. I knew my knowledge of how to use a semicolon would one day be my undoing.

    Sad thing? I was already writing in a more simplistic style than I would for other things. No idea how to fix this. Time to experiment in posts, I guess…and break up with the semicolon. He’ll be crushed. ;)

    • Rhys says:

      Haha!

      Yeah not sure how it works with punctuation, doesn’t wordpress by default change the icons to emoticons?

      Also it’s not really worth doing with creative writing, or writing where certain dialect is prevalent (overuse of the word “Bobbins” on my personal blog means it’s quite an “advanced readership”) .

      • Umm…I spend the majority of my time talking about ways to slay the Negativity Beast…Maybe Google just feels sorry for me because they think I’m insane.

        WP does change certain things to emoticons, but I was talking more about using a semicolon to create a complex sentence. No more of that for me, I guess. Must use small sentences…Must not use big words. :D

  14. darkduck says:

    My blog has extremely “intermediate” level. I am quite happy with this one, but will try to reduce it to more or less balanced with Basic.

    Out of interest, why is your blog post dated 1st of Feb? I only have 31st of Jan on my calendar. And it is 5.20pm in the UK.

  15. Fred Tracy says:

    I had no idea this tool existed. How awesome. I’m 32% beginner, 56% intermediate, and 11% advanced. I think this is a pretty nice spread, as I can get pretty technical in explaining just what I’m talking about on my site.

  16. Ryan Smith says:

    Thanks for the tips man!

  17. Tim Woodbury says:

    What great timing! I was manually working out my Flesch-Kincaid numbers myself, and had been thinking of putting in the work to get a wordpress plug-in up and running. Now I don’t have to.

    The downside is that I can’t seem to make myself write below the 9th grade level (consistently at 10th), and they suggest 7th-8th at average. Got to dumb it down a bit, I guess.

  18. A. Tatum says:

    Rhys you made great points. When I talk about tech stuff I try to keep it plain and simple. Some people literally get overwhelmed by technology. I have a friend who gets a headache when having to deal with new tech things.

  19. Well, I checked, and my site comes out at 75% basic, 22% intermediate. I think that I like that, as I am trying to reach a public that is around my age, or perhaps a bit older. How will it help in that aspect? Time will tell.

  20. Kyle Logue says:

    It’s good to see that someone shares my point of view on writing for those not on the same technical level. It’s definitely a key to success in the blogging world.

  21. I’m aspiring to have my blog be like the oatmeal dot com… a comic with cartoons and copy in thought bubbles. Hehehe!

    One of the best ways I’ve heard it put was from Eben Pagan when he said “Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.”

    You said two of those already so I thought I’d throw in the last one.

    It’s always been my belief that people college grads or high school dropouts, in an ADD behavior prone environment like the interwebz would be better served by having content in front of them that was a breeze to fly through.

    Big ass words, forever running sentences, and walls of text don’t invite a reader to have a feeling that this is something that they’ll be able to finish with the least possible resistance.

    Thank you for sharing this tool and keeping this at the forefront of my mind!

  22. Christin says:

    I was happy to see my site had a good spread, much like Fred’s results. I understand wanting to draw in more readers, yet also have a hard time [wanting to] “dumb down” my writing. I was actually a bit surprised to see the percentage of “advanced” percentage I had, because I’m not trying to be advanced. In the middle works for me and thus far, I haven’t had any questions of clarification.

    I do believe this information is useful though, to know where I stand in case I find it is an issue. Thank you so much for presenting here.

  23. Karen Marrow says:

    This is very interesting. I didn’t know this even existed, so thanks for the great post and information!

    Karen

  24. Becky says:

    I checked out the google reading level thing and that is pretty cool. I’m satisfied with my results. May use it to improve my blogging and writing. Love what google is doing!

  25. 18% – Basic
    78% – Intermediate
    3% – Advanced

    I’m happy with that. I think! :)

  26. Thank you for this post! What an interesting concept–I have never once thought about the reading level of my blog. Would it be best to try and strive for a certain reading level based on your demographic, or should you try to write various types of posts to cater to all? I run a blog for writers, but it would be off hand to assume that all of my visitors would be advanced readers. Hmmm… now you have me thinking.

  27. Karen Chaffee says:

    I learned some years back when I was taking a writing course, that US newspapers use the “write at the 6th grade reading level” as their criteria. I’ve always kept that in mind when writing to a general audience.

    Karen

  28. Vivek Parmar says:

    i prefer to write as much simple as i can write becuase many of them are not so geeks and as a beginner they need spoonfeeding

  29. Randy Laub says:

    Never knew about this until the post. Good stuff. Even though less is more for many readers, the optimal reading level for a blog should be largely based on the blog objectives and target audience it’s intended for.

  30. Togrul says:

    Thanks Rhys for sharing,

    I just searched the title of my blog with an advanced reading level and it returned only 68 results :)

    Will definitely play with it to see how I can use to my needs.

    Cheers,
    Togrul

  31. Simon Turner says:

    Wow. I didn’t know about this. Lots of things for us bloggers to keep in mind but then again what good is great content if nobody can understand it?

    Google might be a bit behind the times (what heresy). As a lawyer (as well as a blogger) we were well taught at Uni to make sure that we write in ways that clients can understand.

    An idea will only ever be good if people understand it enough to know it’s good.

  32. Hi,

    Gr8 article. I have not heard of this tool. Looks to be a great one and will try it in our blog.

    Thank you
    Laks

  33. Interesting, I always wondered how it was calculated- I wouldn’t change my writing style though to fit some scheme that can’t truly judge writing quality or level.
    take care,
    It’s interesting which sites get what reading level though.

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