One last thing about this readability for rankings stuff: Notice the footnote in the graphic above? Pages in the top 10 results tend to be easier to read.
‘Nough said. I think that’s probably enough information to convince you that readability matters, and that it can affect your business results. But what about how to improve it? What might a marketer do to take a page with poor readability and turn it into something more engaging?
Glad you asked.
As mentioned before, readability really breaks down into writing and typography. So I’ve sorted a number of ways to improve readability according to those two aspects. Consider these a starting point for making life easier for your readers. They might also make a nice checklist to use before you publish.
How to make your writing more readable
The #1 way I see writers muck up readability? When they force their sentences to do more work than one sentence should be asked to do. So break up those sentences. Give them – and us – a breather. You can throw in long sentences, especially if they’re expressing a more languorous thought (rather like this one, which does seem to be running on) but make them the exception –or risk boring readers. (That one is 34 words, if you’re counting.)
Another old-school copy trick: Never let a paragraph run for more than 5 lines.
- Avoid gerunds (“ing”) and nominalizations (so use “use” instead of “utilize”).
- Use subheaders.
They help people scan your copy. They’re also great for search engine optimization.
Try putting the primary thought or keyword of the bullet point in bold. It’ll make it stand out more.
This timeless advice from The Elements of Style still applies. If a word, a phrase, a sentence or a whole paragraph does not deliver some value to the reader, cut it.
As in “We closed the file”, not “The file was closed”. The only time to skip this is if you’re trying to avoid assigning blame. As in “Alicia lost the account” versus “The account was lost”.
A free online tool that shows which sentences need help. It also points out adverbs, passive voice, and other opportunities. Or try the Readability Test Tool.
Use voice recognition software to capture your words as you talk. It blows me away how clearly and directly and powerfully some people speak, yet put them in front of a keyboard and it all goes to muck. This post has some great tips for how to talk your way towards better copy.
Want some reading recommendations for ways to clarify your words? Check out:
- Use a typeface that supports clarity.
There are a bunch of studies around the web about which typeface is easiest to read. Alas, they contradict each other. All I can tell you is to consider testing the typeface you use on your site. It can make a big difference in conversion rates, bounce rates, and other critical metrics.
Anything below 12-point type is hard to read. There’s another interesting case study about how increasing type from 10pt to 13pt and increasing the line height resulted in:
- A decrease in bounce rate by 10%
- A decrease in site exit rate by 19%
- An increase in pages per visit by 24%
- A 133% increase (yes, you read that right) in form conversion rate
Lest I skip my drumbeating about mobile, please check your pages on mobile devices too. Tiny type hurts some people’s eyes.
- Know where to place images.
Did you know putting an image above a headline will get the headline read by 10% more readers? Or that image captions get read four times more often than body copy?
- Use margins and white space.
People form an opinion about web pages in 50 milliseconds – about 0.05 seconds. Proper use of white space and margins will make your pages look easier to read.
If we want to engage our audience with our content (anyone who doesn’t care, put your hands up. I thought not.), we have to make it appealing. In addition to being useful, the copy has to be easy and interesting to read. The layout has to be pleasant to the eye and set up for scanners. Otherwise, even if the ideas in the writing are fabulous, you’ll miss most of your potential audience.
What do you think?
Is there a problem with readability in B2B marketing content? Are there other ways to improve readability besides what I’ve mentioned here? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Editor’s note: In the 90s I met the wonderful Jane Root, who changed how health care information is written. She said lower literacy levels saved time and increased compliance at all levels, regardless of education or language fluency, so outcomes were better. Her advice to writers:
“It’s information, not literature.” –slx