Evaluating Content: Reading Level

By 11/15/2010 December 2nd, 2010 Content Strategy

Does your average target user understand the writing found on your Web site? Did you, or your content author, think to evaluate the reading level of your copy prior to publishing? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

If you’re a large organization farming out your Web writing or if you’re a small business with a DIY approach, I’m willing to bet that the author of your content is fairly educated. And while said author(s) can certainly write beyond the average high school student’s reading level it doesn’t mean they should.

One of the biggest problems I discover when I’m tasked with evaluating Web content lies in the reading comprehension level of copy. More often than not, it can be simplified, edited for brevity and structured into smaller paragraphs. Multisyllabic words (how’s that for confusing/technical word choice!) are often presenting reading problems and most of the copy is not optimized for scanning.

Too many sites are just too damn hard to understand for someone trying to find information, make an informed decision or complete a transaction (you know, the things that ultimately lead to that elusive ROI?).

Pharmaceutical manufacturers Web sites are notorious for having readability problems in copy. We’ll use drug maker Glaxo Smith Kline (Advair, Boniva, Paxil, Valtrex, etc.) for our evaluation purposes in discussing the importance of readability.

As you can see by the quick report above, GSK.com has an average reading level of grade 20. So, in theory, to understand the majority of the material on the site, one would have to have significant postgraduate education.

I may be going out on a limb here in assuming that a good chunk of the consumers who use GSK drugs and any potential investors may not have achieved masters or doctoral degrees. So, it should follow that when the less educated are reading through potential side effects of drugs, or are scanning for quick information about the company; this copy isn’t going to make them feel more at ease in using a GSK manufactured medicine or convince them the company is worth their investment dollar.

The problem with GSK mostly lies with a high instance of confusing words and complex sentences. More than 27 percent of the words found on the GSK site are “Complex” (Complex words are polysyllabic – having 3 or more syllables). Even worse are the more than 175 instances of long sentences (10-20 words or more).

How do you improve it? Simplify, my friends. Simplify.

Start aiming for writing copy that younger audiences will understand. I don’t believe that there’s necessarily a magic number, but I generally shoot for 6th to 8th grade. Most journalism schools teach new copywriters to scribe for that comprehension level. It should be no different for most Web sites, unless you have a highly specialized audience (think advanced Web programming, Law Libraries, etc.).

Granted, most drug manufactures create microsites to be more consumer facing and in line with the marketing campaign (Valtrex.com), but even these sites are writing to a high school reading level and using high percentages of confusing words. (Valtrex.com is appropriate for 11th graders FYI)

I’m also of the belief that if corporate sites are in your linking strategy on consumer facing sites (as is the case for GSK.com), you need to have both readable by the same audience, which is clearly not the case here.

Is pharmaceutical stuff sometimes difficult to understand? Absolutely. Do drug names often contain multiple syllables? Absolutely. Does that mean the rest of the content (including descriptions of symptoms the drug treats and potential side effects) needs to be difficult to understand? Absolutely not.

Having trouble getting there, or don’t know how to even get started in evaluating copy readability? It’s not really an exact science (that’s what great editors and content strategists are for), but fortunately, there are lots of nifty tools out there to evaluate this stuff. If you’re looking for a quick evaluation of a page on a site, Read-Able.com is a strong, visually appealing site to generate reports on existing reading levels that will help get your pointed in the right direction.

And, if you’re going to get started in evaluating reading level in web copy, here’s the three things you absolutely need to pay attention to, whether you hire a content strategist or not.

1. Flesch Kincaid reading level. This test is sort of the standard. It’s built into many word processing programs and will give you a general idea of how difficult the content is to digest. If the reading level is too high, cut back on confusing words, simplify sentence structures and utilize elements that make the page easier to scan. Too low? Beef it up a little. Too many syllables in you words? Try breaking them apart or separating thoughts.

2. Make your content brief! More often than not, site owners are trying to reach mass capacity with web content to be better optimized for search. It’s a major disservice to your users and to your governance plan. If you’re using 10 words, do it in five. Don’t use a paragraph when bullets or a diagram can say it better. Utilize checklists, how tos and walkthroughs instead of detailed descriptions or confusing language.

3. Use the common sense test. I know, this is asking a lot, but just like you know pornography when you see it, you’ll know confusing copy when you see it. Don’t be smart for smart’s sake. If you know an eighth grader, ask them if they get the gist of your copy. If they don’t, chances are a good chunk of your visitors don’t get it either.

What tools is your organization using to evaluate reading level? Is it something your strategists are building into their Web toolkits? If not, maybe it’s time you ask them to start doing so, because you may be missing out on conversions or customers.

Image courtesy Brian Talbot

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Rick Drake says:

    I agree with you that most companies aren’t paying close attention to reading level, but I also think it’s really tough to find writers that take it into account. How does content strategy hold writers accountable for making sure their copy is appropriate for the audience?

  • Rick:

    Good content strategists create editorial platforms for the projects they’re dedicated to. Those editorial platforms, in my opinion, need to clarify tone, messaging strategy by audience and outline the appropriate reading levels for each of those audiences. That editorial platform should be the basis for copy document templates that are delivered to your content authors and anyone responsible for editing and reviewing that contnet is responsible for making sure that the content meets all of the guidelines that were established and agreed upon in said platform. Whew!

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