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Blogosphere Trends + Readability Scoring

Do you know your blog’s readability score? If not, there are several ways to find out. But before you go calculating, let’s talk about why you should even care.

For starters, the average American adult reads at a level between eighth and ninth grade, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey. Other nations’ results vary but many are in the same neighborhood. So if you’re writing on a twelfth-grade level, you are not reaching some segments of the population (which is why many government-regulated documents must have readability scores that indicate they can be read and understood by most people).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing and, depending on your target readership, might even be a good thing, but there are some advantages to simplifying: increased sharing, a bigger audience, and possibly better SEO.

Blogger and “social media scientist” Dan Zarrella’s research found that posts written for lower grade levels were shared more often on Facebook—with those written on a second-grade level being shared about 40% more often than those written on a twelfth-grade level. (Look, I’m not saying this isn’t a little depressing, I’m just stating facts. We all know that one of the Internet’s most popular sites is called “I Can Has Cheezburger?”)

Way back in 1954, a fascinating (seriously) book called Know Your Reader: The Scientific Approach to Readability cited multiple studies and experiments in which changing the reading level of published material increased readership by as much as 50%.

The fact is, the more readable your text, the more people you can reach.

Ever since Google implemented its reading level feature late last year, there have been rumors that your site’s categorization (basic, intermediate, or advanced) may be impacting your search engine rankings. I’m not an expert on SEO but what I can tell you for sure is that, at the very least, Google users now have the option of limiting their search results to a specific reading level and filtering out the rest.

Those are the arguments for keeping your reading level basic, but ultimately, you ought to be writing for your readers, not for some formula. Take your readers’ ages, backgrounds, and interests into account. At the last magazine I worked for, there was a woman on staff who personified our publication’s demographic, so when I finished a story, I’d ask myself, “What would Betsy think?” You can do the same by imagining your ideal or average reader while you write, and using readability scores occasionally to see if you’re hitting the mark.

When you decide you do want to see where your blog is sitting, there are a few tools you can use.

  • To use Google’s reading level feature, do an advanced search for site:thenameofyoursite.com (that’s the word “site”, then a colon with no spaces, then your blog’s URL without the “http://www.” part), and be sure you have selected “Annotate results with reading levels” under the “Need more tools?” heading. A couple of words of caution about Google’s tool: It doesn’t give you a grade level, just categorizes your site by basic, intermediate, or advanced. ProBlogger.net, for example, is 44% basic, 55% intermediate, 0% advanced. Also, be aware that it may take the text of your comments into account when evaluating your site.
  • If you use Microsoft Word to write posts, you can check readability easily. Go to “Preferences,” then “Spelling and Grammar,” and you’ll see a checkbox under “Grammar” that says “Show readability statistics.” I use this often. The advantage over Google is the handiness of it and the ability to evaluate a single post. Plus, it gives you the average number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and percentage of passive sentences.
  • The first readability formulas were written back in the 1920s. Now, according to Wikipedia, there are literally hundreds, each taking different factors into account and, thus giving you different scores. My favorite, at least by name, is McLaughlin’s SMOG formula, where SMOG stands for Simple Measure of Gobbledygook. (If you really want to geek out and learn about the most popular ones, Wikipedia’s Readability page is a great start.) That’s why I like sites that provide multiple scores at once. AddedBytes has a great readability calculator as does online-utility.org. Both allow you to analyze specific text rather than a whole site.

To get a sense of what different grade levels look like and the results you’ll get, let’s take a quick look at the scores of posts about the month’s most-blogged-about topics, according to Regator: (they are, in order, Osama bin Laden, Royal Wedding, Birth Certificate, Easter, Donald Trump, PlayStation Network, Lady Gaga, Tornadoes, Libya, and Japan).

The Daily Beast’s “Osama Bin Laden’s Death Exposes the Price of Torture
Google site info:
19% basic, 80% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease (according to Microsoft Word): 47.3 (scale of 1-100, where 100 is easiest)
Grade level
(the AddedBytes calculator, which averages five types of scoring, was used): 11.36

PopEater’s “Celebrities Tweet Like Crazy About the Royal Wedding
Google site info: 88% basic, 11% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
62.2 Grade level: 6.92

Fast Company
’s “How To Make Skeptics Believe Obama’s Birth Certificate Is Authentic
Google site info:
19% basic, 79% intermediate, 1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
30.8 Grade level: 14.62

Makes and Takes
’s “A Wee Enchanted Garden and Easter Bunny Napkin Holders
Google:
No data
Flesch Reading Ease:
74.8 Grade level: 7.1

The Gothamist
’s “Is Trump’s “Campaign” Over Before It Even Officially Began?
Google site info:
59% basic, 40% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
56.0 Grade level: 10.46

L.A. Times Technology Blog
’s “Sony’s websites may be next target for hackers, report says
Google site info:
15% basic, 84% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
45.8 Grade level: 11.32

Perez Hilton
’s “GaGa’s Monster Ball Breaks Record For Debut Headlining Artist!
Google site info:
94% basic, 4% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
62.9 Grade level: 6.38

Daily
Intel’s “Death Toll From Tornado Outbreak Reaches 300
Google site info:
17% basic, 82% intermediate, <1% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
56.6 Grade level: 9.92

Econbrowser
’s “Saudi oil production and the Libyan conflict
Google site info:
1% basic, 78% intermediate, 19% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
55.9 Grade level: 9.68

ScienceDaily
’s “NASA technology looks inside Japan’s nuclear reactor
Google site info:
<1% basic, 29% intermediate, 70% advanced
Flesch Reading Ease:
24.5 Grade level: 12.06

Now that you get a sense of what these scores can tell you, will you be testing your blog? Let us know in the comments!

Kimberly Turner is a cofounder of Regator, a site that curates the best of the blogosphere, as well as an award-winning print journalist. Reach her on Twitter @kimber_regator and get free widgets for your blog from Regator.

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Comments

  1. This is really interesting! I know that the predominant philosophy in blogging is to try to state things as simply as possible, but I never really gave any thought to the actual readability score of my blog. I am going to test some posts out per the steps outlined above and see what happens.

    Thank you for this information!

    • AstroGremlin says:

      Fascinating topic!

      I tested my blog’s readabilty score via the Google Advanced Search and got 100% “Basic.”
      Although the article suggests this a a good thing, I compared my results with others here (many good sites) and wonder if my blog may be perceived as being devoid of intellectually challenging content .

      A full 100% Basic kind of suggests extreme “low brow,” no?

      Curious about Google’s readability “sweet spot” for SEO, not that we’ll ever know.

  2. This is very useful information. I will check out my readability score. Thanks very much!

    “…government-regulated documents must have readability scores that indicate they can be read and understood by most people.”

    I’d be willing to bet that government documents are not understood by most people.

  3. The Google link just told me my blog is 96 percent basic and 4 percent intermediate. That means my blog can be read and understood by most people. I’m thinking this is a good thing, right?

  4. Kole McRae says:

    I’m a professional writer and just discovered that my own blog is 96% basic, 3% intermediate and 0% advanced.

    wow.

    • Basic isn’t a bad thing. It probably just indicates that you’re writing clear, concise sentences without jargon or unnecessarily long words.

  5. Jay Vance says:

    Good post, this is why most of the nation’s newspapers write their articles at a 5th to 6th grade reading level. That’s were the majority of the population sits at reading proficiency.

    We as bloggers must write easy to follow articles that our readers can keep up with, another great tip to keep readers coming back.

  6. Lori E says:

    My results are also 96% basic and 3% intermediate. Now my superior math skills tell me I am missing a percent???

  7. Good post. In looking at my sight, I found that (according to Google) I have 63% basic 36% intermediate, and 0% advanced. Where the final 1% went I shall never know. I also looked at other tools and found that my average grade level is around 8, which is a little higher then I would like, but not much.
    Thanks for the post. Yes, I am a bit of a geek and I did do research on the whole readability thing, I find it fascinating.

    • I’m a linguist so I find it really fascinating too. In fact, writing this one sucked almost a whole day away in research–primarily because I wanted to know more and more about the various formulas and how they’d changed over time.

  8. I’m depressed enough already, without this.

  9. Just checked my blog and Google identified the reading level as 77% Basic; 22 % Intermediate; 1 % Advanced. And I thought my writing style was pretty basic!
    Thanks for sharing this tool, Kimberly.

  10. This is a great post. I was excited to know how my blog will fair to this Reading Level. The results for my blog is Basic: 92%, Intermidiate 7%, and zip for Advanced.

  11. Google says my site is:
    Basic 0%
    Intermediate 0%
    Advanced 0%
    Does that mena that my site is too new for them to give accurate results?

  12. Lindsey says:

    What a neat post! I tried the google rating and I’m at 38% Basic 59% Intermediate 1% Advanced. It would seem I’m missing 2% hm….
    Thanks for the tips and links, I’ll be looking into this more in depth!

  13. Diana says:

    Mine says 100% basic lol — I guess that’s good since it’s easy to read? Hmmm…

    • Diana says:

      Just did the search a different way (by putting in the entire URL instead of site:) and got different results: Basic 48%, Intermediate 46%, Advanced 4%. That makes more sense.

  14. Iona says:

    So is the goal to have a readability score appropriate to the average readers level or that of our target audience?

    • Your target audience is really what matters. If you’re an academic writing for other academics, for example, you certainly don’t need to be concerned about writing on a tenth grade level.

  15. Glenn Murray says:

    Thanks for the post Kimberly. Very interesting to see some of those correlations. (Fellow linguist, guilty as charged.) Looks like this is something we should add to the Problogger Scorecard…

  16. Good post. I never thought of these tools.Thanks for sharing great tools which is helpful in growing our blog.I will check my readability for my posts now on. Thanks again.

  17. Denys Yeo says:

    Thank you for this very interesting post. I wonder how proportions of the 3 (Google) readability levels relate to how much a site is read? For example, (content interest level assumed about equivalent) is a 59:40:1 blog read more (or less) than a 1:78:19 blog. Is there an ideal ratio?

    • I think only Google knows the answer to that. It hasn’t been confirmed that readability percentages actually impact Google SEO directly, so it may not matter (other than the fact that searchers can filter out results with readability scores they don’t want).

  18. Thanks for the blogosphere trends which increase users readability score….

  19. Jeni says:

    This is interesting. On my main site, which is about skin care, I get sort of technical with a lot of my posts. I assume that’s why my site reads at an “intermediate” level. You would think talking about makeup and beauty products would be pretty easy to read, though.

    basic: 31%
    intermediate: 67%
    advanced: 1%

  20. Brandon says:

    This is a great piece! As I am currently working on a children’s book (around 2nd-3rd grade level), I pay close attention to the draft’s readability scores. I have also had this very conversation with a few of my Twitter contacts also. I will admit, I never gave my blog a second thought on readability, but it makes good sense.

    Tried the Google scorer, got 92% basic and 7% intermediate. I’m satisfied with that!

    Thanks for the info!

  21. Javier says:

    I guess it depends on the topics you write about. I write mainly about aerospace & defence, travelling, investing and book reviews. The result: ~25% basic; 75% intermediate; 0%. The challenge would be to write about something that involves a bit of technical narrative and make it in a way that reads as “basic”.

    Would be nice to find such a site, to learning from it.

  22. Hi Kimberly,

    very very nice post, the information you mention in this post is excellent, i am aware of google advance search option but never tried in this way and the details information about using MS-Word for calculating readability – i don’t even know about this option of word, now i can use this, credit goes to you!!

    Thanks for sharing such a valuable information
    John

  23. Tamar says:

    Results by reading level for site:koreaforniancooking.com:
    Basic 71%
    Intermediate 28%
    Advanced 0%

    I can’t imagine that my site will ever get more basic than this since i have to use lots of transliterations of Korean words as well as Korean words in my posts but it’s something to think about.