By Neil Patel published January 4, 2016

The Ultimate Science-Backed Method for Creating Content That Readers Love

creating-content-readers-love-cover

Want to make readers love your content? As it turns out, there’s a formula for it – an exact mathematical equation that defines lovable content.

To be more precise, the formula is for readable content. But content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing.

The science-backed method I’m referring to is known as the Flesch readability score. In this article, I want to explain the power of readability, and how you can release the powerful process of the Flesch readability score upon your content.

If you absorb this content and implement it, you’ll discover a vast improvement in your content marketing, search engine optimization, and your conversion rates as well. It all starts with readable content.

Readable content is important

To whet your appetite, allow me to explain exactly why this is such a crucial topic.

Without readable content, your content marketing, your website, and your overall approach to online content are doomed to failure. Readability is a critical component of SEO and usability.

Google prefers readable content

As search engines have evolved, so has the importance of readable content for SEO.

It used to be that a few optimized articles on your website could produce a sizeable uptick in your search rankings. The web algorithms knew enough to crawl the content, index it, and rank it for the optimized keywords.

Not anymore. Algorithms like Panda were designed to penalize low-quality content. When the algorithm was rolled out in early 2011, many sites experienced massive drops in their traffic and visibility.

panda-algorithm

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Many SEOs and webmasters were on the edge of despair when website traffic was trashed by the algorithm.

google-panda-update

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Today, the algorithm is smarter. Google employs people whose job it is to read website content and grade it. Google feeds this information into the algorithm, which uses it to automatically rate content’s readability just like a real reader would do.

Google’s information is contained in the often-leaked Quality Rating Guide. From this document, we know that Google cares about how expert, authoritative, and trustworthy content is.

Right now, Google is indexing and rating your website. The readability of the content impacts how well or poorly your content will perform in the search results.

Readers engage with readable content

There’s another reason why readable content is so crucial: Readers themselves.

Who are the people who are accessing, understanding, processing, and interacting with your content? It’s real people who care about reading.

AJ Kohn explains readability this way: “Readability is about making your content accessible and comfortable. Never make it a chore.”

Unreadable content is a huge turnoff.

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

Thus, I’m a huge believer it not just content, but readable content. It matters, big time. Search engines love it. Readers love it. As a result of readable content, your business and your website become more profitable.

It’s not just #content, but readable content. It matters, big time. via @neilpatel #contentmarketing #seo Click To Tweet

Use a mathematical formula for content that readers love

Now, about that formula.

There is a math formula that will tell you if users love your content. It sounds too good to be true, I know. However, some very smart people have developed some highly sophisticated processes that allow us to score exactly how readable your content is.

Allow me to introduce to you Flesch-Kincaid.

The skinny on Flesch-Kincaid

You may have heard of the “Flesch-Kincaid” but didn’t know what it meant, where it came from, what it tested, or why it even mattered. Let me give you the bullet points:

  • “Flesch” is for Rudolf Flesch. He was an author and leader on readability. He developed a readability test in his 1951 book, How to Test Readability.
  • “Kincaid” is for J. Peter Kincaid, a psychologist and scientist. He created a grade-level test for readability, originally developed for the U.S. Navy.
  • The two tests are referred to as the Flesch Reading Ease, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Why are these tests so important? In the 1970s, the military used these tests to score and develop training manuals. If recruits couldn’t understand the information, it wouldn’t be that useful.

Realizing its importance, other government agencies caught on. Pennsylvania led the way, stipulating that insurance policies have a ninth-grade level readability. Educators, scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and other professionals have adopted and implemented Flesch-Kincaid standards and tests.

In my opinion, content marketers should do the same thing – understand and apply the principles of Flesch-Kincaid readability and grade level.

What are these mathematical formulas? There are two – one for Flesch Reading Ease and one for Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Flesch Reading Ease Test

The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease test is as follows:

flesch-kincaid-equation

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If the score is high, then the content is very readable. If the score is low, the content is harder to read.

Here are some sample scores for well-known publications:

  • Reader’s Digest – 65
  • Time Magazine – 52
  • Harvard Law Review – low 30s
  • Moby Dick – 57
  • One sentence in Swann’s Way – 515.1

Here is how Wikipedia estimates the application of the Flesch Reading Ease test to grade levels:

flesch-reading-ease-grade-levels

Should you care about the formula? The exact mathematical equation? No. Its major features? Yes. There are two significant features you should know about:

  • Short sentences equal a lower score. Short sentences are easy to read. Therefore, they produce lower scores.
  • Short words equal a lower score. A word’s complexity is gauged by how many syllables it has. For example, “complicated” has four syllables, which means that it’s going to have a lower score. “Easy” has two syllables, thus contributing to a higher score.

If you use long sentences and long words, your content will be more challenging to read.

If you use long sentences and long words, your #content will be more challenging to read. via @neilpatel Click To Tweet

Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Test

The Flesch Reading Ease Test assigns an arbitrary number to content. The Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Test puts this number into perspective by assigning a grade level.

Here is the test formula:

flesch-kincaid-grade-level-test

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The same features of the Flesch Reading Ease test are present in the grade level test – short words and short sentences make for lower grade levels.

The various weighting of the features are different, however. For example, the Flesch Reading Ease test places a greater weight on multisyllabic words than the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test.

The grade-level test mostly applies to those who are familiar with the U.S.-based educational system. If, for example, a grade level number is six, then the content should be accessible, understandable, and readable by an average student in the sixth grade of a standard U.S. school.

Here are some grade level scores, taken from popular works:

  • CNN.com news article – 10.9
  • USAToday.com news article – 10.3
  • Stephen King’s Green Mile – 8.4
  • J.K. Rowling’s Sorcerer’s Stone – 5.5

Here’s another way to view these scores. I developed two sentences and scored them. The sentences say basically the same thing:

Example 1: The implementation of multisyllabic terminology produces challenging readability issues for those whose cognitive and educational readability tendencies are limited or underdeveloped.

Flesch Reading Ease: 48.1

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 25.2

Example 2: Short words are easy to read.

Flesch Reading Ease: 102.04

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 0.05

Apply the Flesch-Kincaid tests to your content

The Flesch-Kincaid readability and grade level tests are curious and intriguing, but can they really impact your content marketing?

Yes. Here’s a straightforward way to use Flesch-Kincaid principles:

Define your target audience

You should know who it is you’re trying to reach. Defining your target audience and creating a persona are the first steps.

sample-sally

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Understand what publications they read

Along with this persona, you should create a list of the publications that the user typically reads. There’s a difference between niche media and popular media. To determine the real reading habits of your target audience, it’s important to understand their niche interests.

For example, lots of people will read a website such as Forbes. To determine the real reading habits of your target audience, it’s important to understand their niche interests too.

For example, someone in the water/wastewater industry may read a Forbes article that discusses email management.

email-management
But this same reader also might be interested in an article from the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

journal-hazardous-materials

Score the publications to determine their grade level

The purpose of identifying the media used by your target audience is to gauge the user’s grade-level or readability-ease score. When you can hone in on the right grade level or ease score, you can create content around the same level. If you create content that is way above the grade level, you’ll lose your readers. Create content that is way below the right grade level, and readers will feel that it is too simple for them.

In the example above, the Forbes article scores:

  • Flesch Reading Ease: 53.9
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 94

An excerpt from the Journal of Hazardous Materials scores:

  • Flesch Reading Ease: 33.09
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 11.73

Use an average of the scores from your target audience’s preferred publications. This is your magic number. Use it as a rough range to score and assess your own content.

Use words with the right number of syllables

You already know that short words vs. long words are one of the main determining factors in readability.

Some of the same tools that display Flesch-Kincaid scores also show the average word length. Get a sense of the average number of syllables you should be using.

Find the right sentence length

Sentence length, another readability factor, should influence your writing approach. Find out the ideal or average sentence length for your target audience, and work to keep your sentences this length.

Write and check your content

Finally, run your own content through Flesch-Kincaid tests and see how you’re doing. It’s really helpful to get a sense of how your content scores, so do this regularly.

Grading tools

Here are a variety of grading tools that you can use to assess your content.

Readability-Score.com

readability-score.com

This tool automatically grades your content, and provides a quick readout of scores. A variety of other scoring and indexing formulas that it compels provides an “average grade level.” The tool also provides text statistics.

grade-levels

Read-Able

readability-test-tool

This tool can calculate readability by URL or copying and pasting the text.

It features the same kind of information as Readability-Score – reading indices and text statistics. Read-Able provides an explanation and breakdown of each of the scores, which is helpful for learning more about your calculated score.

readability-test-results

Online-Utility.org

tests-document-readability

Online Utility has a simple interface and an easy input method. You can input URLs but only plain text sites.

One helpful feature of this tool is that it gives you a list of the sentences that you should edit to enhance readability.

enhance-readability

Conclusion

Readability doesn’t have to be a fuzzy and hard-to-define issue anymore. With some strategic insights and a few well-placed tests, you can be well on your way to creating content that is easy to read and understand.

Your readers will love you.

Have you used Flesch-Kincaid readability scores? What is your experience?

Want to grow the love for your content year-round? Subscribe to the CMI blog for daily ideas and inspiration on content marketing.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he has created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. You can connect with him on Twitter @neilpatel.

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  • http://newstorystudio.com Ciarán

    Hi Mr Patel,
    I enjoy reading your articles, but the premise of this one is a little misleading (I understand that you’re probably under pressure to deliver eye-catching headlines).

    Re:

    “The Ultimate Science-Backed Method for Creating Content That Readers Love”, “an exact mathematical equation that defines lovable content.”, “It all starts with readable content.” etc.

    I disagree:

    People do not “love” content because it is readable.

    People love content because it’s valuable to them.

    If the content is of no value, it doesn’t matter if it’s readable or not.

    • Danny Zecevic

      Hi Ciaran,

      You raise a good point with respect to content quality and value to that reader being of utmost importance. I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read content that really wasn’t reader-friendly but i still saved and shared it because the material was spot on.

      That being said, this article also talks to the SEO impact of readability. If content is readable, SEO will favour it. In support of your argument, perhaps the title should be “Science backed method for creating content that readers will find”.

      Great article either way, i learned something valuable. Thank you.

      • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

        Danny, glad to help. I think your suggestion on the title is valid and you bring up some great points.

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      I think both factors matter — you are right in that value is more important though – thanks for sharing.

      • DanielHochuli

        Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that search engines love readable content; not necessarily people.

        If your demographic for content sits at the Harvard Law Review end of readability, you should prioritize to write the content to suit that readership, not to deliver a higher Flesch-Kincaid readability score. If you did write an article in the Harvard Law Review at the readability level for an 11 year old, I doubt it would be well received.

        You have made this point in the article, but I thought I’d word it a little differently.

        • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

          Daniel, You are spot on.

          It’s all about making things digestible to your audience. I try to stay away from content that is too complex or wordy.

  • http://www.cybercomunicacao.com.br Thiago Santana

    Neil has done it again. Very interesting article. Will use it forever and ever! Congrats man and God Bless you!

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Thiago, glad you found it helpful. If you need anything else let me know.

  • Beth

    Hi, Neil, This is a great article. Is this statement (from your blog) correct(?): Short words equal a lower score. A word’s complexity is gauged by how
    many syllables it has. For example, “complicated” has four syllables,
    which means that it’s going to have a lower score. “Easy” has two syllables, thus contributing to a higher score.

    • Stephanie Vukmanic

      Was thinking the same thing.

  • rogercparker

    I’ve purchased $20 books that didn’t have as much valuable content as this post. Thank you, Neil. Recommended for all.

  • Stephanie Vukmanic

    Neil – awesome article. I actually created a template for improving readability ease and lowering grade levels that I use religiously. I include the basic MS Word Flesch-Kincaid scores, as well as one of the free readability calculators. I tend to use EditCentral.com (not mentioned above) because it highlights complex words and the score results are easier to copy and paste in to my word doc template. I’ve shared your article with my digital marketing team members #preachingtothechoir!

  • LAMAJA

    How possible is that each criteria, the Google rating and the Flesch-Kincaid may present different results and actually contradict each other? If Google rates the expertise and authoritative voice behind the content (for instances, an academic work) this content may be actually more complicated to read, with more sophisticated words and longer sentences than content created by someone that is not an expert or authority in the matter and that because of that is more approachable to the common reader.

  • http://www.NonprofitsHelpdesk.com John Hornbeck

    Excellent article as usual Neil. Three quick observations. 1) Less complex sentence structure also aids readability. 2) Avoidance of unnecessary jargon is also a key factor. 3) More readable content assists with the growing tendency towards content skimming and short screen time. All of this adds up to reaching more people with your story. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Marco Lang

    Hi Neil.
    Great piece! I’ve even printed it out for easier reference.
    Just one thing … is the word ‘lower’ correctly used in this section (re the reading ease score)?
    “Short sentences equal a lower score. Short sentences are easy to read. Therefore, they produce lower scores.
    “Short words equal a lower score. A word’s complexity is gauged by how many syllables it has. For example, “complicated” has four syllables, which means that it’s going to have a lower score. “Easy” has two syllables, thus contributing to a higher score.”
    If this section refers to the readability ease test, should the word ‘lower’ be replaced with ‘higher’ in each instance?
    Please keep these pieces coming.
    Marco