How quickly can you read? Do you actually read every word and savour it? Or do you just zip through the material, absorbing as much as you can? Reading is such an everyday skill, we tend to ignore it. However, it is fundamental to the success of your website or blog. Make your material difficult to read in any way and – bang – your readers disappear as fast as you can say the word “readability”.
We do know something about reading, though. For a start we do not read every word in a sentence. In fact we don’t read words at all – we capture entire phrases in a single glance at a line of text. Our eyes bob up and down – they don’t travel in a straight line across the text. And we zig-zag around the page as we go. The muscles of your eyes get a real workout when you are reading…!
However, what gives us real eyestrain is having to re-read material because we didn’t quite “get it”. Our brain goes “hang on, didn’t understand that” which provides an instruction to the muscles of our eyes to go back and start again. That then leads to the muscles that control the focus of our lenses to work harder and before you know it your eyes get tired. They are literally working hard. That makes us feel worn out as well. Anything that is difficult to read then becomes a chore. Remember those college text books?
You might complain about those airport novels, such as those from Jackie Collins, but you don’t have to concentrate to read them. Just open the page and absorb it. True, it may not be intellectually stimulating, but these novels are very easy to read. Now compare their readability with the average business website. No contest.
Most business websites are unreadable – well, not without taking time, pausing, re-reading, concentrating and thinking about the material. You can actually test the readability of any website using the excellent tool at Read-Able. Just type in the domain name you want to check and it will tell you the age at which the text is understandable. Officially, reading ages in the UK go up to 16 – beyond that is considered complex material at the “text book” level. Many websites have reading ages of 18.
Popular websites and blogs, however, have much lower reading ages. The BBC News website, for instance, is understandable by 11-year-olds. The page you are reading is OK for those aged 12 (still too high in my view). The world’s most read blog, The Huffington Post, is readable by 7-year-olds. However, you’ve got be 15 or older to understand travel advice from the Foreign Office.
With printed documents we are less distracted than when reading online documents. It means that if we find something hard to read online, we move our eyes away more, making it even more tiring to read complex text. That also reduces comprehension. If you look at the time people spend on a website, perhaps using a tool such as Alexa, you tend to find that people spend a long time on sites that are easy to read and a long time on sites that are difficult to read. But it’s the reason behind those lengths of stay that are important.
With the easy-to-read sites, perhaps it is due to greater engagement. But with the hard-to-read sites, it could well be due to the increased time it takes to actually get the words inside your head in the first place. In other words, analytics information that tells you the length of time someone spends on your website might not be telling you they like your site. Instead it might be a signal that your text is too complex, that your material is difficult to read.
Online we tend to skim and read rapidly. That means the phrases that pop into our eyes need to be instantly absorbed. They need to be like an airport novel. You don’t need to “dumb down”, you just need to make your text readable. Using the Read-Able tool should help do that. If in doubt, imagine you are writing for a 7-year-old; it works for the world’s top blog…!
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+