Many people assume that the most lionized authors utilize prodigious vocabularies and concentrate on complicated concepts. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, most successful writers often use the simplest words and ideas to reach the widest possible audience.
In a Contently blog post entitled “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write,” Shane Snow examines the reading levels of various writers. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, Snow reaches some surprising conclusions about famous writers’ work.
For instance, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea–a novella that won Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1953–was written at a 4th grade level. Other notable authors like J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen also produced work seemingly aimed at an elementary school reading level.
Do great writers dumb things down because they’re lazy or don’t trust their readers? Quite the contrary. As any practicing writer knows, it takes hard work and skill to simplify complex themes. Since over 75% of U.S. adults fall somewhere between a 3rd and 5th grade reading level, the goal for all writers should be to produce work that can be understood by nearly anyone. Even if the subject matter is especially complex (say, politics or science), it’s possible for the writer to communicate at the reading level of the average American and still be understood.
For companies producing content marketing, writing clear, readable prose is as important, if not more so, than it would be for a novelist or journalist. For one, marketing content stands a greater chance of success if it can be read by its target audiences. After all, very few of us are likely to purchase a product or service if we don’t understand what we’re being offered. But there’s another compelling reason to use the KISS principle aside from communicating directly with human readers. Content marketing writers also need to keep KISS in mind so that their work stands a greater chance of being indexed at the top of Google’s search engine page rankings (or SERPs).
Experienced online content writers already realize the importance of climbing to the top of the SERPs. A key factor in getting to the top is tailoring online writing to fit Google’s ever-evolving standards. Recently, Google rolled out changes to its core Penguin 4.0 algorithm. Among the major updates: real-time data refreshes that allow changes to recrawled and reindexed sites to be viewed almost instantly, as well as a granular process that lower the SERPs of web pages which use spam. Additional Penguin 4.0 updates devalue the use of bad links and reverse previous penalties that would’ve taken companies months, if not years, to recover from.
Because this round of Penguin 4.0 updates are so recent, it’s difficult to determine how they’ll affect content marketing writing over the long haul. With that said, here are a few educated guesses as what these changes might mean for online writers:
1- Content remains king
In recent years, Google updates have sought to disincentive black-hat SEO practices like keyword stuffing and duplicate content. As a result, dishonest and/or slothful content producers have been pushed off the first page of SERPs in favor of content-rich sites that keep users coming back for more. If anything, the newest Penguin updates will allow high-quality, white-hat SEO content to find wider audiences, but it’ll also give black hats a fresh opportunity to amend their ways without suffering lengthy penalties.
2- Reverse older spam penalties
As you may already know, Google levies strict penalties against sites that violate its spamming guidelines. Historically, it’s been hard to get off Google’s naughty list if your website previously engaged in spamming practices. With Penguin’s real-time refreshes, however, a site could more easily redeem itself from previous manual or algorithmic penalties.
3- Eliminate bad links
Generally speaking, Google defines bad links as any that artificially attempt to manipulate a web page’s SERP. The worst offenders are internal and external links that have no real relationship to the page they’re on, as well as those that are faulty from a conceptual or technical point of view. If you have a site that’s stuffed with bad links such as these, there’s little chance that you’ll reverse the negative effect overnight. However, the Penguin 4.0 updates do make it possible for you to build new quality signals and authoritative links without having to wait months or years to see the positive effects in your page’s SERP.
In conclusion, it appears that Penguin 4.0 will continue the trend of readable content that appeals to audiences first and to Google web crawlers second. To be sure, on-site and off-site SEO optimization remains important as a means to get your content seen by users. But instead of stuffing a web page or blog post with jargon, marketing content writers will be encouraged to produce work whose first priority is to be as reader-friendly as possible.
In that regard, Google’s Penguin updates and readability tests like Flesch-Kincaid share the same goal. The KISS method of writing doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, nor does it mean that you don’t respect the reader’s intelligence. Instead, keeping things simple is just a good way of reaching as many people online as possible. Taking complex ideas and using clear, direct language to describe them is arguably the hardest thing you can do as a writer. But in the end, your readers will appreciate you for it and you’ll see that appreciation reflected in increased page views and additional traffic for your website.
Not sure if your website content passes the he Old Man and the Sea test (meaning that it can be read and understood by 4th graders)? There are several online resources you can use to determine if your content lives up or down to that readability standard:
This common readability test (referenced earlier in this blog) is the most well-known and most-used resource of its type available. The test gives users two scores that give them a comprehensive assessment of their writing abilities. The first is the Flesch reading score, which is scaled from 1-to-120 and provides a rough indication of a passage’s readability; the higher the score, the easier it is to read. The second is the Flesch–Kincaid grade level, which assigns a grade level for a given passage. Click the link to the Flesch Grade Level Readability Formula to learn more about the math behind the test.
Gunning Fox Index:
A popular alternative to the Flesch-Kincaid test is the Gunning Fog index. This index also assigns a grade level to a given segment of text based largely on the number of words used and how many of those words are multisyllabic. You can use the Gunning Fox Index link to take the test for free.
This readability score test assesses your writing by using several formulas. They include the aforementioned Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning Fox, as well as other tests such as the Coleman-Liau Index and the SMOG (Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook) Index.