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.