Redefining Readability in SEO: More Than Just a Metric

Readability has long been a key topic in SEO, aimed at making content easier to understand. Typically, discussions revolve around sentence length, use of headers, and word choices.

However, as a concept that’s often reduced to a simple metric in SEO tools, much of the existing advice centres on optimising content to achieve specific readability scores.

But what if I told you the real priority is enhancing your reader’s experience? 

While it’s true that content should be straightforward and easy to digest, its real value comes from meeting the diverse needs of your audience. For example, understanding how users read online, considering their goals, and tailoring the structure and style of your content to meet these needs.

In this guide, we’ll explore key considerations in readability to ensure your content is aligned with the needs of online readers.

Table of Contents

What readability is (and isn’t)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines readability as ‘the ease with which a text may be scanned or read.’

Taking this straightforward definition, readability measures how easily a text can be read and understood. However in the context of web content, readability isn’t quite that simple. 

Instead, I would argue that web readability requires an expanded definition; one that considers the nuances of online reading behaviours. 

For instance, our reading behaviours are influenced by:

  • Familiarity with the subject: Our background knowledge or lack thereof can impact how we understand content. Familiar topics might be easier to navigate, whereas new concepts could require greater effort to decode.
  • Reader intent: The purpose behind our reading shapes our experience. Whether we’re skimming for quick facts or diving deep for details, our goals influence what we consider readable and engaging.
  • The site’s user experience: The way your website looks and feels matters. The size of your text, the space between lines, and even the colours you use can affect the reading experience.
  • Accessibility of the content: Good readability means everyone can read your content. This includes people with visual impairments or other challenges. 

With this in mind, here’s an updated definition:

Readability is the measure of how easily online content can be accessed, understood, and engaged with by a diverse audience, factoring in user familiarity, intent, user experience, and accessibility.

Considerations for better readability

We don’t read, we scan

When we think of ‘reading’, we picture sitting down with a book, soaking up the pages of our favourite novel. But the same can’t (always) be said for reading web content. 

When faced with information overload, we naturally resort to scanning, which involves quickly glancing over text rather than absorbing every word. It’s a pragmatic approach, especially when we’re trying to solve a specific problem or gather specific information on a subject. 

This behaviour differs significantly from the focused, linear reading experience associated with books.

Various studies from Nielson Norman Group find that we’re far more likely to scan than read online content word for word. In fact, this behaviour is considered a basic truth of online information seeking; a pattern seen since the earliest days of internet research.

As a result, it’s crucial to ensure online content is easily scannable. To do this, use: 

  • Clear and meaningful subheadings: Each subheading should simply outline the content of each section. Avoid overly clever or ambiguous subheadings.
  • Jump links: Providing clickable on-page links that take users to a specific section of the page can help readers find specific information more efficiently.
  • Bolded text: Bolden text to highlight key information. This draws the reader’s eye to the specific information they may be looking for.
  • Hyperlinked text: Link to related pages where helpful. This will help the reader understand what information is covered on the page, and what’s covered elsewhere. It can also highlight information in a similar way to bolded text.
  • Bulleted lists: Use bullet points to present information in a concise manner, making it easier for readers to digest key points.
  • Sensible word counts: Aim for concise sentences and paragraphs to provide an easy reading experience and keep readers engaged. This is particularly useful on mobile devices, where there’s less screen space for text.

Stick to one idea per paragraph

The idea of sticking to one idea per paragraph may sound simple, but is actually really effective. From just about every point of view – readability, user experience, and SEO – this principle is crucial for making your content more digestible.

Presenting each idea in its own paragraph will help the content flow more naturally, reflecting the way we would communicate in everyday conversation. Think about it: we’d have a much easier time understanding another speaker’s points if they were presented one at a time. It gives the reader time to process the point and gear up for the next one. 

Additionally, this helps users scan the content more easily. Readers can easily find the information they seek without the risk of missing important points.

It’s important to consider the flow of each idea, ensuring a coherent progression of points across paragraphs. Each idea should link to the next, tying together a logical narrative for the reader. This approach not only improves comprehension but also helps sustain reader engagement.

For example, this very section employs the following paragraph structure:

ProgressionParagraph aimPassage
1Introduces the idea of sticking to one idea per paragraph“sticking to one idea per paragraph”
2Point 1 on why this is useful“helps the content flow more naturally, reflecting the way we would communicate in everyday conversation”
3Point 2 on why this is useful“readers can easily find the information they seek without the risk of missing important points”
4Elaborates with further advice“It’s also important to consider the flow of each idea, ensuring a coherent progression of points across paragraphs”

By combining each paragraph’s introduction into a single statement, we can test the coherence of the section as a whole and ensure each idea flows nicely into the next. 

Here are the passages as a single statement: 

‘Sticking to one idea per paragraph helps the content flow more naturally, reflecting the way we would communicate in everyday conversation. Additionally, this helps readers easily find the information they seek without the risk of missing important points. It’s important to consider the flow of each idea, ensuring a coherent progression of points across paragraphs.’

Start at the end

When we search online, we typically have a specific goal in mind, whether it’s making a purchase or just skimming for facts. To meet these goals effectively, it’s beneficial to “start at the end” by placing the most important information at the forefront. 

This method ensures that key details are immediately accessible, allowing users to find what they need quickly and easily.

This approach is sometimes referred to as the “inverted pyramid” model, a technique long used by journalists to prioritise the most newsworthy items at the beginning of an article.

The Inverted Pyramid diagram

However, the inverted pyramid model enhances readability not only in journalism, but across almost all types of web content. For instance, informational articles.

Let’s say a user was searching for tips on optimal sentence length for SEO. They’d probably want to understand how long the sentence should be, and how it should be formatted. To address this, our article would immediately provide the answers under a suitable subheading.

Here’s a snippet from another article I wrote on sentence structure and SEO that follows this principle:

Snippet of sentence structure article

Not only does this style of writing benefit readability, it can also improve your chances of gaining featured snippets:

featured snippet example

The F-shaped reading pattern

Research from Nielsen Norman Group finds that online users often read content in an ‘F-shaped pattern’.

Using eye tracking software, the study found that the dominant reading pattern resembles an F, comprising three main components:

  • Horizontal reading across the upper part of the content (forms the F’s top bar).
  • Another horizontal movement, covering a shorter area (forms the F’s lower bar).
  • A vertical scan along the left side completes the F’s stem, varying in speed and appearance on eye tracking heatmaps.
F-shaped reading pattern example
Source: F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content (original study)

With this in mind, it’s important to think about how your content is presented. For example, people may miss significant portions of content based on how the text flows. If readers scan in an F shape but your content isn’t formatted this way, they might skip parts simply because they’re on the right side of the page.

We can see this happening in the heatmaps above, showing a preference for content on the left side.

So, consider how you can format text to follow this reading pattern. Take a look at the example below for ideas.

F-shape pattern example

F-shaped pattern in comparison to a non F-shaped pattern
An illustrative example of an article outline using an F-shape pattern, and an article outline that does not use an F-shape pattern.

In the graphic above, the F-shape pattern webpage highlights:

  • A concise heading
  • Short paragraphs
  • Bulleted lists
  • Bolded text

This makes it easy to scan and pick out important points, and even bolds text on the right side to avoid key parts being overlooked. On the other hand, the non F-shaped pattern offers limited visual cues to help readers scan the content.

Despite being commonly cited by fans of readability, not all web scanning follows an F shape. There are other common ways people scan, such as the lawn mower pattern.

The lawn mower pattern

In a lawn mower pattern, users look from left to right, then downward, followed by a right-to-left movement, and finally downward again. The name is inspired by the pattern used to mow a field of grass. 

Research suggests that this reading pattern mostly occurs on pages with distinct cells of content, particularly on comparison tables. When we scan comparison tables in this pattern, we’re essentially looking out for multiple features across a set of products or services.

Lawn mower pattern diagram
An illustrative example of how the lawn mower scanning pattern occurs across comparison tables.

For sites using comparison tables, it’s important to consider the lawn mower pattern and how useful it can be for readability. When addressed properly, this can help users make decisions more easily.

How to support lawn mower scanning

Here are some tips on how comparison tables can support lawn mower scanning:

  • Use fixed column headers: Use sticky headers in lengthy tables to keep column titles visible at all times. This helps users maintain their scanning pattern without losing their place.
  • Allow users to hide columns: For larger tables, allow users to hide columns they’re not interested in to simplify the information. 
  • Self-explanatory content cells: Design each cell to stand alone as much as possible. Users should be able to understand each cell without needing to repeatedly refer back to row labels, which disrupts the scanning flow.
  • Avoid or explain jargon: Use tooltips or brief explanations within the table to define any technical terms or jargon. This helps avoid pauses or confusion while scanning.

To learn more about page designs, read our complete guide to webpage patterns.

Simplify your content for search engines

Search engines like Google are very good at understanding language, but they still benefit from simplicity. Just like human readers, Google will have a much easier time understanding clear and well-organised content.

This not only helps Google process your content better but also improves your chances of ranking higher in search results.

Let’s take a look at Google’s own Natural Language Processing (NLP) tool. This lets you see exactly how Google processes sentences.

In the example below, I’ve used two sentences with the same meaning, one in active voice and one in passive voice. 

Note: active and passive voice are two types of grammatical voice used in English. In active voice, the subject performs the action. In passive voice, the subject receives the action.

Active voice example: ‘The dog bit the postman’

Active voice example

Passive voice example: ‘The postman was bitten by the dog’

Passive voice example

Both sentences convey the same meaning, but their structure affects readability. For example, the active voice sentence “the dog bit the postman” is more straightforward and involves less syntactic complexity—notice the fewer dependency arrows. 

This simplicity means Google can process these words more easily, not just due to fewer words but also because of fewer grammatical complexities.

The main point is that simpler sentences are easier for Google to understand. While Google’s language processing is becoming more sophisticated, clear and straightforward sentences generally help SEO.

Write for your audience

Readability is about engaging and understanding the reader, not just the words we use. 

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think: Is the content easy to understand? Does it flow logically? Is it engaging?

Consider your audience’s knowledge level and their search intent. Ultimately, ask yourself: What does the user want to achieve? How can I help them achieve this with ease? Each piece of content should feel like a conversation between you and your reader, rather than a broadcast.

For example, a student engineer and an experienced professional engineer approach the topic of ‘sustainable energy solutions’ differently. An experienced engineer quickly understands the overarching concepts and knows the jargon, while a student engineer needs more time to grasp these concepts and may not know the specialised terminology.

Tactics for effective communication

  • Simplicity vs. complexity: Adjust the complexity of your language based on the expertise of your audience. Use simpler, more explanatory language for beginners, and denser, technical language for experts.
  • Logical flow: Ensure that your content follows a logical structure. Begin with foundational concepts and gradually introduce more complex ideas. This not only aids understanding but also keeps your audience engaged.
  • Engagement: Use relevant examples, anecdotes, or case studies to illustrate points. This makes abstract concepts tangible and keeps the reader interested.

Make your content accessible to everyone

Improving the readability and accessibility of your content helps everyone, especially people with health conditions or impairments. 

Here are some best practices for readability and accessibility: 

  • Ensure your content supports screen reader technology. This requires using semantic HTML (the use of proper tags for headings, paragraphs, and other HTML elements). Additionally, ensure that all interactive elements such as links and buttons are accessible via keyboard and have descriptive labels.
  • Limit the number of typefaces used on your page. This simplifies readability for everyone, including people with dyslexia or other visual processing impairments.
  • Optimise spacing between lines, words, and letters. Select a text weight that is neither too light nor too bold.
  • Use a high contrast between text and background colours. Follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which recommend a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text.
  • Avoid small font sizes. Aim for a font size of at least 12 points (pt) or 16 pixels (px) to ensure legibility.

For more help with web accessibility, you can check out our Web Accessibility Checklist!

Tips for measuring readability

When assessing the readability of your content, consider these steps to ensure your writing is clear, engaging, and suitable for your intended audience:

  • Use readability formulas: Explore tools like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level or the Hemmingway App to get an understanding of the complexity of your text. Tools like this can provide a rough indication of readability, but remember, they don’t know your audience as well as you do.
  • Review sentence length: Aim for an average sentence length of around 20 words. Shorter sentences can enhance understanding and retention, especially for complex topics.
  • Monitor paragraph size: Keep paragraphs short—ideally 3-4 sentences each. Large blocks of text can deter readers and make the content appear more daunting.
  • Read aloud test: Read your content aloud to check for flow and ease of understanding. Listening to your words can help identify awkward phrasing and areas where the content may not sound natural.
  • Peer feedback: Ask for feedback from peers or actual readers. Surveys, comments, or usability tests can provide direct insights into how your content is perceived and understood.
  • A/B testing: Experiment with different versions of content to see which performs better in terms of engagement and comprehension. This can be particularly useful in fine-tuning tone and complexity.
  • Engagement metrics: Analyse metrics such as time on page, engagement rate, and return visits to evaluate whether your content holds reader interest.

Are readability scores useful?

Using readability scores as a diagnostic tool can be useful, but is not without its challenges. 

Most importantly, they just don’t tell you much about the overall quality of the text. Readability tools can’t account for the several factors that influence the ease and enjoyment of content – search intent, tone of voice, and relevance, to name a few. 

Any scores should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s only examining a small aspect of a larger text.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, redefining readability in SEO goes beyond just aiming for good scores. It’s about understanding your audience’s needs, how they read online, and making your content accessible to everyone. 

By focusing on the user experience rather than just numbers, we make sure our content is not only easy to read but also genuinely useful. 

Let’s keep our digital content clear, engaging, and inclusive, making every piece of content a helpful resource for all readers. Remember, in SEO, good readability helps us connect better with our audience and makes each interaction more meaningful.