Readability: Dumbing down or opening up?

Writing a readable text can be daunting. Especially if the topic of your blog is difficult or extremely technical. Is it really necessary to focus on readability if your audience is used to your jargon? Well, although your audience might be up to the task of reading your lingo, the entire purpose of SEO is to attract traffic beyond the audience you already reach. If you aim for the top positions in the search engines, you should have texts that are readable and understandable for a large audience. This doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down your copy. Here, I explain why, and how you should make sure your text is readable.

Writing a readable text is hard

We do feel your pain. We understand you chase those green readability bullets and that can be hard if you’re writing for an advanced audience. Sometimes, people ventilate their frustrations on twitter. One of our users tweeted: ‘My blog posts are written for grownups and I write at the college level. Sorry, but I don’t know how to dumb myself down.’

We get that it might feel like you need to dumb yourself down in order to get the readability bullets green. However, you could also try to think of it as opening your content up to an audience you’ve not yet reached. And that’s the goal of any SEO-strategy: getting that traffic to your website!

Why should I care about readability?

Readability is important for your user. Reading from a screen is hard and people get distracted quickly. But, most importantly, you want people to understand what you’re writing. You want to get your message across. Nobody likes to read something that’s incomprehensible, boring or stuffed with keywords. If you write a text that people don’t understand, you won’t help people find what they need. 

Moreover, readability is also important for Google. Of course, if your text is better for the user, it will rank better, as Google optimizes for that same user. And, it is very important to realize here that Google’s algorithm is trying to mimic humans. It tries to read texts the way humans read texts. As Google becomes more capable of understanding and scanning texts in a human-like way, the demands on the readability of text also rise. Google will have a hard time reading sentences that are very long or that have complicated grammatical structures. For these texts, it will be harder for Google to figure out what they’re about. And this will result in lower rankings as well.

Read more about the importance of readability in our blog post ‘Does readability rank?’

Is ‘dumbing down’ really necessary?

Some niches require lingo. For technical blogs, you’ll probably use difficult, technical terms. You cannot avoid that. Nevertheless, that does not mean that such a text can’t comply with our readability analysis. In a previous life, I wrote a PhD-thesis called ‘The intergenerational transmission of criminal convictions over the life course.’ This was a hard topic. It involved many technical terms, cryptical hypotheses and boring analyses. However, the introduction of my PhD-thesis complies with the Yoast readability analysis (I did not enter the entire thesis as it contains a lot of tables and references). I needed to add subheadings and white spaces between paragraphs, because that is not particularly common in the field of research I did my PhD in.

Without wanting to brag: I have a green bullet for readability on all the blog posts I write. However, I often fail to comply with at least one of the checks. For this blog post, I had a hard time complying with passive voice (but still got a green bullet in the end). In other cases, I got orange bullets for transition words.

The readability checks for this post

It’s important to realize that one red bullet is not really a problem, yet. You should focus on getting your overall bullet green. If your sentences are a little bit too long, but you compensate that with short paragraphs, your text will be a good read overall. The following tips will help you improve the readability of texts with complex topics.

The overall score in the Yoast SEO content analysis
If your ‘overall’ readability bullet is green, your post’s readability is usually well-suited for a large audience!

Tips on opening up your writing style

What to do if you’re failing our readability analysis and writing about a complicated topic? First of all, I would recommend you shorten your sentences. You should probably not avoid the technical lingo you’re using, but you can try writing about complicated matters in short sentences. Usually, when a sentence is rather lengthy, you’ve created a combined sentence. Such sentences can be easily split into two (or three even). Our readability analysis lets you highlight your lengthy sentences. That makes it pretty easy to find and shorten them.

The second thing you can do if you’re writing about something complicated is to pay attention to your paragraphs. Start a paragraph with the most important sentence, then explain or elaborate on that sentence. This helps a reader to grasp the concept of your article, just by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Make sure your paragraphs aren’t too long either (7 or 8 sentences is quite long enough). And, add a subheading that tells the reader what to expect in that paragraph. That will help your reader to grasp the meaning of your text much more easily.

A final tip on how to quickly improve readability is to use transition words. You can make your writing much more readable by using proper transition words like ‘most important’ and ‘because’. The Yoast readability analysis allows you to check your use of transition words. If you use too few, you can add extra transition words in pieces of your text where you have very few. Using transition words is a bit like putting cement between your sentences. The relationship between two sentences becomes apparent through the use of transition words. Readers will understand your content much better if you use these kinds of words properly.

Conclusion: open up to a large audience!

The goal of SEO is to attract new visitors to your website. You want to rank high in Google in order to get people to click on your results. And you want those visitors to stay and read your post. No matter how difficult the topic you’re writing about, if you care about SEO, you should try to make your text readable. Your users and Google will reward you for it!

Read more: “Yoast SEO hates my writing style!” – Common misconceptions about the Yoast plugin »


3 Responses to Readability: Dumbing down or opening up?

  1. Gina Hearn
    Gina Hearn  • 4 months ago

    Still not convinced. I am writing to attract prospective parents to our academically selective secondary school. They are likely to be university educated and used to reading more demanding English. My particular bugbear is the objection to the use of the passive voice, something that greatly enhances text. I fail to see why the passive is deemed to be difficult to read.

  2. Carolyn
    Carolyn  • 4 months ago

    I’m inspired to know this post met the green bullet test. It doesn’t appear “dumbed down” at all. I guess I just need more practice.

    Do you use Grammarly or Hemingway as well as the Yoast SEO and Readability tests?

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      Willemien Hallebeek  • 4 months ago

      Hi Carolyn! Glad to hear the post inspired you :-) We do use Grammarly, to check spelling and grammatical errors in our posts. And Hemingway is certainly a very useful tool to evaluate your text! We even recommend it in this post: https://yoast.com/attractive-writing-style-blog/ :-)