Is Your Web Content Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
Should your law firm’s Web content be so basic that it could be understood by someone with a fifth-grade reading level? Or should your firm cater instead to a more sophisticated reader?
I recently asked members of our Search Marketing, Social Media and Content teams for their insights. The consensus: You can help your rankings and Web conversions by writing for both audiences.
What Is ‘Readability’? And How Do You Measure It?
First, let’s look at “readability,” or the ability of your target audience to read and understand your content. There are several tools you can use to assess readability. These include the Dale-Chall test, SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) test and Gunning FOG (Frequency of Gobbledygook) test.
The Flesch-Kincaid test may be the best convenient one. Simply go to your Review tab in Microsoft Word and click on Spelling & Grammar. The test will put out two scores:
- A reading ease score between 0-100 and
- A reading level score with a number indicating the years of education your reader would need to comprehend your content.
The test takes into account the total number of syllables, words and sentences in your content piece. The higher your reading ease score, the lower your reading level score should be.
- Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, employers (or masters) may be held liable in tort for the acts of their employees (or servants). Score: 41.4 / 13.4. (Suitable for a college sophomore.)
- The law allows bosses to be sued for the acts of their workers. Score: 89.5 / 4.0. (Suitable for a fourth grader.)
High or Low?
The average reading level in America is seventh grade, and 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. can only read at or below a fifth-grade reading level. (This site has many other interesting literacy stats.)
So, it would make sense to feature content on your firm’s site that is low on the Flesch-Kincaid reading level scale. In other words, keep it plain and simple. Avoid “legalese.”
However, some in the Search Marketing field say the opposite when it comes to Google’s algorithms.
In December 2013, MathSight announced with “a 99.9% confidence level” that Google clearly uses the Flesch-Kincaid and Dale-Chall readability tests in its evaluation of linking content.
According to the researchers, Google favors Web pages with well-written, researched and “sophisticated content … So, for example, the lower the ratio of rare words to the total on offsite linking pages, the more detrimental those backlinks are to your SEO.”
In other words, the researchers found that content at a 13th-grade reading level would be considered a much more valuable link than content at a fourth-grade reading level.
This raises the question: Who should your content serve – the average reader or Google’s algorithms?
‘Write for People, Not Search Engines’
The response among our team members could not have been more clear.
“Write for people, not for search engines,” said Kenneth Harris, our Social Media Editor. “I think you can still write quality content that is easy to understand without being penalized.”
Nik Donovic, our Offsite Content Advocate, agreed.
“If content doesn’t make sense to the average reader, chances are they won’t come back again even though Google might ‘understand’ you better,” he said. “I think hard-to-read text does the opposite of what one hopes it will.”
Appeal to Visitors with Different Backgrounds, Different Needs
For instance, most visitors come to a law firm website in need of legal services. They may have little knowledge of legal concepts. They may also have a range of academic backgrounds.
Those visitors may be best served with content that provides basic information and answers their potential questions. This content tends to also be more geared towards conversions.
However, other visitors may come to the site for research or other professional reasons. These could be law students, paralegals, journalists or other lawyers.
More in-depth, highly unique content can serve these visitors. This content may not be geared towards conversions. However, it can still establish authority and thought leadership. It may also generate links and Social Media mentions from other professionals.
“Indirectly, it could satisfy search engines looking for more complex writing,” Jason said.
J.R. Oakes, our Search Marketing Director, said that even individual pages can be both basic and complex. For instance, a graphic can break down an otherwise confusing topic, he said.
“Combining the idea of being helpful – not selling – while knowing your site has visitors from various educational backgrounds should influence you to make sure that a page can be helpful to all,” J.R. said.
The bottom line is that you should be flexible, not formulaic. (There goes my Flesch-Kincaid score.) And you should always pay attention to the different visitors who are drawn to your law firm’s website.
Instead of being concerned about “readability,” the focus should be more on “likeability.”
As Nik said, “Relevance, quality and uniqueness are key with content so that it may be shared.”