How to Measure and Improve the Readability of your WordPress Site

You spend plenty of time crafting your content so that it is easy for search engines to consume. But how much care do you take making sure that visitors can actually understand posts?

According to the US Dept of Health and Human Services, the average American reading level is 7th grade. Most newspapers are written to a 9th grade level (The Times of India is the most difficult at 15th grade level) whilst the novels of John Grisham and Stephen King are 7th grade level.

If you are looking engage a broad readership, you need to be writing like them.

So here’s how to automatically measure and improve your WordPress site’s readability level, and also how it compares with your competitors.

Why you should care about readability

Readability has been studied since the 1880s. It’s long been known that writing that is closer to how we speak is easier to understand. Extensive research in the first half of the twentieth century has proved that clearer, simpler writing leads to greater readership.

We all want our websites to be read by as many people as possible. We spend a great deal of time and effort on getting visitors to our sites, so the last thing we want to do is turn them away with content that is difficult to understand.

Young girl reading a book
The average reading level in the US is Grade 7

How is readability measured?

There are many different formulas for measuring readability including:

Each has its own emphasis but generally they look at the average number of words in a sentence, the number of “hard” words and the average number of syllables per word. Some use controlled lists of “easy” words to determine if a word is “hard” whilst others use the number of syllables.

These biases mean that the best approach is to use a number of the formulas and then average their results.

Measuring the readability of your own content

Not surprisingly with WordPress, there are a number of dedicated readability plugins that will provide all the statistics and scores that you need. Here are two that are worth considering:

Better Writing

The Better Writing plugin adds a metabox to the post editing screen that provides a wealth of statistics.

A screen grab showing the metabox on the edit screen
The Better Writing metabox.

The gauge at the top of the metabox highlights how your content is performing against a target scoring method that you can set in the plugin’s settings page (it defaults to the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test and 50).

If you are going to use the gauge then it’s worth spending time reading through how each of the scoring methods works before deciding which to use.

The more general stats on syllables, words and sentences are followed by scores of the five main calculation methods, followed by the average grade.

The metabox can be configured to appear on posts, pages and even custom post types.

There’s also a Readability score listed for each post on the admin post list page using your selected scoring method.,

Although perhaps not strictly related to readability, this plugin also has “preferred terms” functionality. This allows you to enter a word or phrase and then specify a preferred replacement. If the original term appears in the WYSIWYG editor then it is underlined in blue. You can replace the highlighted text with the preferred term by clicking on the dotted blue line. This is an excellent method for maintaining consistency especially if you have multiple authors.

For example, let’s say we have a sports site and we want to use “football” with “soccer” and “assistant referee” instead of “linesman”. Entering those terms in the Preferred terms tab on the Better Writing settings page will cause the non-preferred terms to be highlighted and the replacement suggested:

Screen grab showing the post body entry with the context menu showing suggested replacement preferred terms.
Non-preferred terms are highlighted with preferred alternatives available via the context menu (right click).

Word Stats

Whilst the Word Stats plugin adds its own reading level to the post list (although annoyingly you cannot order on it) and has stats on an individual post, its strength is in providing analysis at the site level. It creates a new dashboard option with some great graphs and gives quick and easy insight into your content at a site level including the total number of words, the number of content types, the top 20 keywords and a summary of content by aggregate reading level.

Cropped screenshot showing 4 graphs produced by WordStats
Summary graphs produced by WordStats for the dashboard

You can restrict the analysis to a defined timeframe and, interestingly, look at individual authors.

To get the best of both worlds, install both plugins, use Better Writing for the individual post stats and switch off Word Stats individual statistics and use it just for a consolidated overview.

The plugins are installed and you’ve got all the readability stats you could possibly want but how can this data help you improve your site?

3 steps to improved readability

Step 1 – Determine your base target level

A round range gauge
Find your target readability level

Your target level will depend on your topic and your target audience and it’s going to take some leg-work, experimentation and some analysis to find out what works for your site.

To give yourself a head-start, grab 10 posts from a successful competitor site (or a similar site if there’s no obvious competitor) and put them through an online readability scoring tool such as http://www.readability-score.com. Note both the average grade and your preferred specific scoring method that you are going to use for your target with the Better Writing plugin.

That will give you a base target level.

You can supplement this by looking at the scoring of your most popular posts and seeing if there’s a trend.

Step 2 – Rewrite the extremes

Find the content that is either significantly above or below your target level and rewrite. This will not only provide great practise in writing for your target level but will help bring the site as a whole closer to your target level.

Step 3 – Find the appropriate level for your audience

This is the fine-tuning and where you’ll need to experiment. Try writing for slightly above or below your target level and then use analytics to track what impact that has on your visitors’ behaviour. You could even try some A/B testing, delivering two versions of the same content with different grade levels and see if there is any significant difference in key metrics.

Making sure that your posts are easily read and understood is critical. Your blog will have its own sweet spot of readability and combining these tools with a little experimentation will help you find it.

Feel free to share any other tips for measuring and improving readability in the comments below.

Photo credits: U.S. Federal Government , DevExpress