This blog post was originally published October 6, 2016 and has since been updated for accuracy and freshness.

You already know how important good copy is to your website. After all, it’s how visitors learn what your organization is all about and what you have to offer. But what if the information you put online is too complex and wordy? If you restrict a user’s ability to understand your content, then you risk losing important interactions online. Even if your copy is masterfully crafted and meaningful, it won’t be effective if it isn’t readable.

What is Readability?

Readability is about making content clear and easy to understand for the largest audience possible. Focusing on readability increases the chance that your target audience will actually read and interact with the content you publish. For this reason, readability should be a natural part of your content management.

Let’s say you’ve formulated a clear communications strategy and your content plan is all in place. Without checking the readability of your content, all of your hard work and planning could go to waste.

Here are three reasons why readability should be a focus for content editors:

1. Your Audience’s Reading Age is Lower than You Think

Whether your website is targeted toward the general public or a specific demographic, it’s important to realize that the average reading age is lower than you might expect. While overall literacy rates are, in general, rising across the world, the averages tend to level out on the lower end.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) tracks adult reading levels on a 500-point scale. Even the highest-ranked country, Japan, averages only a score of 296, with high achievers like Sweden and Norway coming in at 279 and 278. By comparison, Canada hits the PIAAC average score of 273, while the United States, Denmark, and Germany fall below average at 272, 271, and 210. With most countries falling within 50%-60% of the benchmark, it’s clear that overly complicated language can deter your users no matter where they are.

So how do you write content that meets your audience where they're at? Expert opinions differ around the world, but here are some general insights:

  • In the UK, the central government encourages content writers to aim for a readability level of age nine. Their reasoning is that around the age of nine, children stop reading common words and just recognize their shape.
  • The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests keeping medical documents—traditionally a fairly complex style of writing—within a 7th to 8th-grade reading range.
  • In general, U.S. experts suggest aiming for a Flesch-Kincaid readability score of 60 or higher to serve readers of all ability levels.

2. Readability is About Web Accessibility

An even bigger concern is that by not addressing the readability of your content, you could be inadvertently discriminating against users with learning disabilities. In contrast to other online readers, some users will read words letter for letter–making long words and sentences a challenge.

As part of global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), text should not require a more advanced level than lower secondary education. Language should be plain and conversational, sentences should not be longer than necessary, and the voice should be active.

3. Online Reading is Different

Regardless of literacy level, people read differently online than they do when reading printed text. Studies have shown that people scan web pages and only read about 18% of what’s on the page. Web users don’t even necessarily read from top to bottom or word for word. This is because they are looking for specific information or trying to complete a task and can get impatient if the content is too wordy. That increased reading speed can lead to less comprehension of complex materials, which again makes the case for simpler, plain-language approach to web content.

As a content editor, it’s not enough to copy and paste text from one format to another. As a rule of thumb, reduce copy by 50% if you’re converting print text to digital. In order to make sure your website is understandable and accessible to all users, you must consider how the text is formulated and what words you’re using.

It is also important to remember that writing clearly for the web is a skill. Writing well on paper does not necessarily mean that someone communicates well online. By ensuring content editors are involved in the production of online content, they can help reduce jargon and other poor readability elements.

Implementing Readability on Your Website

So we’ve established that readability is vital to your digital content process, but how do you implement it? Download our Readability Checklist to learn how to write readable content and keep it on hand as a helpful reminder every time you're writing new content!

Download the readability checklist