Admit it… Yoast SEO’s readability tab bugs the hell out of you!
You’d spend hours making edits, desperate to turn every red and orange bullet point, green. Nothing less! You are competing with the big guns and want people to find you.
And if Yoast’s Readability analysis can get you a higher Google ranking, you’d be happy to spend extra time to get green bullet points.
But, could this obsession be counterproductive?
- Does a full score of green bullets really mean your content is easy-to-read?
- Does Google really promote search ranking by Yoast SEO’s readability standards?
- Is manipulating readability for a machine more important than resonating with real people?
Readability in the perspective of humans, search engines, and Yoast
Readability is a measure of how easy it is for a person to read and understand a piece of content. It takes into account both the complexity (e.g. use of jargon, choice of Sentence structure) and presentation of the content (e.g. typography, layout).
If a human reader takes too long to read your post — either because of badly-structured content or a cluttered design layout — your content is considered hard-to-read.
Search engines and readability
Search users exit web results that are irrelevant to their search and hard-to-read. If it takes a person minutes to figure out what your content is about, they move on to the next search result.
This explains why Google’s algorithm favours easy-to-read content and rewards web pages that fulfil this criterion with higher search positions. That said, easy-to-read content is subjective. You have to consider your target readers education background and industry.
Read my earlier post for the list of potential readability ranking signals used by Google.
Yoast SEO and readability
Used by over 5 million WordPress websites, including businesses like yours, Yoast SEO is the top plugin for SEO. It includes an analysis feature (at the bottom of your WordPress post/page editor), which gives feedback about content readability and focus keyword.
On the readability tab, Yoast scores your content with colour-coded bullet points improvement feedback — red reveals a serious problem; orange shows some room for improvement; green is good.
Yet, Yoast’s readability analysis has some limitations…
Yoast ignores content presentation:
Yoast gauges readability based on content complexity alone. It ignores how your content is presented (e.g. layout and typography), which is a huge factor in readability.
Yoast has limited data on how Google assesses readability:
Like the rest of us, Yoast has no idea how Google’s algorithm measures a web page’s readability. It only knows human-readable content best practices.
Yoast oversimplifies readability best practices:
Yoast quantifies readability best practices into its formula and oversimplifies how actual people read. It doesn’t consider exceptions.
Don’t get me wrong. Yoast’s feedback is backed by solid data. The problem, however, occurs only when writers become a slave to green bullet points and lose sight of what is important — resonating with target readers.
Yoast SEO’s Readability Analysis Factors
Here’s a look at each readability bullet point, and when you should ignore the red (or orange) feedback. Also, I’ve added examples of content that do well despite breaking Yoast’s guidelines — posts from Hubspot, Buffer, Pottermore, and other websites.
Click on the example screenshots to zoom in (and see what Yoast says about readability).
#1 Flesch Reading Ease Test
To get the green bullet, your content has to get a score of 60 and above in the Flesch Reading Ease test. A score below 60 to the lowest of 50 gets the orange bullet; anything below 50 gets the dreaded red bullet.
People on the web are notorious for scanning content. Most prefer easy-to-read posts. The Flesch Reading Ease test determines how complex a content copy is and scores it on a scale of 0 to 100 (see table below).
|100.00-90.00||5th grade||Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.|
|90.0–80.0||6th grade||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|80.0–70.0||7th grade||Fairly easy to read.|
|70.0–60.0||8th & 9th grade||Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.|
The Flesch Reading Ease test oversimplifies readability and is, as such, an inaccurate measure of actual readability. The formula calculates content complexity based only on two factors:
- the average number of syllables per word (multisyllabic words penalised)
- the average number of words per sentence (long sentences penalised)
Long sentences and words with more than one syllable are not always hard to understand. But the Flesch-Kincaid formula penalises both. What’s more… there is no proof that Google uses Flesch to determine readability.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Hootsuite & Way Of Ninja
Ignore when using numerous multisyllabic words
Consider the words, “interesting”, “watermelon”, “ingredients”, “society”, and “imagination”. Using them lowers your Flesch Reading Ease score. In fact, these common words score zero solely due to the number of syllables (i.e. more than two syllables).
While “green spheroid fruit with black stripes” will earn you points with Flesch, just use the word “watermelon”.
Don’t avoid common multisyllabic words just to get a green bullet. It makes your writing awkward to read and turns your readers off.
Ignore when using industry-specific terms (that resonates with target readers)This Hootsuite post (seen above) fails the Flesch test mainly because the writer uses terms like “digital marketing ecosystem”, “Analytics”, and “Instagram marketing”. All of these have at least three syllables and are, thus, penalized by Yoast’s Flesch test.
But, there is no readability issue. The post is easy-to-understand for both marketing professionals and business owners. In fact, it has 6391 likes and shares on Facebook.
So ignore the red/orange bullet.
Always consider your target readers and their industry. If they resonate with industry-related terms, use those terms. Don’t deliberately make edits to manipulate your Flesch score. Dumbing down content in this context will cost you potential clients.
Ignore when using transliterated terms and official names of organisationsThis Way Of Ninja post I wrote featured long transliterated Japanese terms and organisation names. I had no choice but to use them when compiling the list of 52 martial arts. Not doing so would have made the post pointless.
But Yoast SEO “awarded” the content a Flesch score of 32.2 (fail!) for the multisyllabic transliterated words and correspondingly long sentences.
The 122 Facebook engagements suggest enough people read the content with no problems.
Again, ignore the red/orange bullet in such as a situation.
Ignore false flags: Long References, HTML code, and WordPress shortcodes
If you include long references at the end of your post, it will affect your Flesch score.
The same goes for HTML tables and WordPress shortcodes.
Ignore when long sentences are appropriate
Refer to #2 — Too many long sentences.
#2 Too many long sentences
To get a green bullet, limit long sentences to no more than 25% of your total sentences in a post. How long is long? Sentences with more than 20 words.
People tend to lose track of your point when reading an overly long sentence. This causes them to re-read the same sentence, which can induce eye fatigue.
But, posts made up of only short sentences are sometimes HARD-to-read. Breaking ideas into shorter sentences can interrupt reading flow. The monotony of endless short sentences can also affect attention span. So moderation of sentence length is crucial.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Hubspot & B2C
Ignore when your writing style involves long sentences and quoted sourcesCaroline Forsey’s skilful use of punctuation makes her point clear and long sentences easy-to-read. Further, another reason she runs afoul of Yoast’s limit is that she quotes statements from several Shopify stores.
If you’re in the same shoes, ignore the orange/red bullet. But structure your sentences (with punctuation) in an easy-to-understand manner.
Ignore when writing technical or complicated topicsRefer to the underlined sentence (below screenshot), which can be broken into shorter sentences.
But, look at my attempt below. The information feels interrupted.
“In Adsense, however, your ad groups will utilize audience interest to determine ad placement. They will also use active intent in researching certain products and past relationships with your site to determine ad placement. ”
Long sentences can often express complicated ideas without breaking flow. This aids in the reader’s understanding.
So ignore the red/orange bullet if a long sentence conveys your thoughts better than a few short ones. Proper punctuation will make it readable.
Ignore false flags — Long References, HTML code, and WordPress shortcodes
Refer to #1 — Flesch Reading Ease Test. The false flags are the same.
#3 Subheading followed by too many words
To get a green bullet, limit content to no more than 300 words for every subheading.
Subheadings let readers scan and know the gist of your content. Keeping the word-count short under each subheading makes it convenient for the reader to scroll back (if they forget your sub-point).
But, subheadings aren’t the only way to section content and make it scannable.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Popular Chips Daily & Pottermore
Ignore when you include pictures and embed referencesRachel Lee’s post shows how charts and pictures can serve the function of subheadings.
Even though her content for each subheading goes over 300 words, the embedded images give her reader’s eyes a point of reference (just like subheadings do).
This is the presentation aspect of readability that Yoast SEO doesn’t take into account…
Ignore when you’re writing a short storyTake a look at J.K. Rowling’s Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry literary write-up, which also goes well beyond the 300 word-limit for a few subheadings.
For literary and flash fiction blogs, using subheadings makes little sense. And if you do use subheadings it’s okay to go beyond Yoast’s limit. Just ignore the red/orange bullet.
#4 Sentence beginnings — same word at the start of consecutive sentences
To get a green bullet, your content shouldn’t have three (or more) consecutive sentences that begin with the same word.
Consecutive repetition makes a post annoying to read.
There are times when repetition helps with reader understanding and resonance.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Example: Buffer
Ignore when emphasising a point
It’s okay to repeat sentence beginnings to emphasise a point, especially as an introduction hook. It can help readers relate emotionally to your content.
Ignore when making lists separated by bullets or semicolonsYoast SEO flagged Buffer’s post for using the same word, “what”, at the beginning of each list item. Should Brian Peters have found other words to replace “what”?
No. Keep in mind that this post is the most widely-shared article on Buffer in the past year.
#5 Not enough transition words (or phrases)
To get a green bullet, use a transition word or phrase in at least 30% of your total sentences.
Transition words and phrases — like “most importantly”, “firstly”, “therefore”, “due to”, “perhaps” and “above all” — help your content flow better. They connect concepts and make the reader anticipate the next sentence or paragraph. This helps the reader process concepts quicker.
Yoast SEO plugin factors in only a limited list of transition words/phrases. Using anything else won’t be counted in your score. Also, deliberately using transition words/phrases — when they don’t fit — makes your content clunky.
Lastly, there is a category of transition words called fuzzy signals that make your content sound unsure and less credible. These are words like “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “probably”.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Example: MINDBODY Online
Ignore when writing sales or product copy
The content copy on MINDBODY’s spa management software sales page is short, tight, and to-the-point. That’s how online sales copy ought to be.
Adding transition words and phrases would impede conversions in this case. That’s the opposite of what readable content is supposed to do.
Ignore the orange/red bullet for your copywriter’s sake!
#6 Excessive passive voice
To get a green bullet, limit the use of passive voice t