On the web, people rarely read things carefully if they read them at all. As content quality takes a more prominent role in SEO, what are some key considerations and techniques in approaching content production?
Shorter isn’t necessarily better
Merely making things shorter isn’t enough. The blunt, functional emails familiar to work environments may be short, but their brevity is more often the result of being written quickly than carefully and is usually at the expense of clarity. No wonder so many people cite work email as a major source of confusion and resentment.
But texts which are both shorter and clearer are more difficult to write, especially without practice, and in sacrificing words we don’t want to lose meaning.
I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
And here’s where a lot of SEO content strategy goes wrong. In the drive for rapid deployment and scalability, nuances can be glossed over and value lost.
Simpler writing needn’t mean “dumbing down”
A key principle for clearer content is keeping reading-age levels low. In general this means aiming for a Flesch-Kincaid score of around 8, i.e. a typical 8th grade student (around 13 years old) should be able to read it.
This is slightly above the level of a tabloid newspaper, which can be a cause for concern where quality is a goal. In other words, it’s easy to see this as a kind of anti-intellectualism. Aren’t we just forgoing depth and meaning in favour of popular appeal? Not necessarily.
To see why, I strongly recommend reading this fascinating analysis by journalist Shane Snow. In short, his work shows that most of our finest modern literature is written at or below 9th grade levels of comprehension. This includes works by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy and Hemingway. And somewhat less convincingly, Dan Brown.
As Snow points out, most people assume that higher Flesch-Kincaid scores equate to better writing. Yet the evidence says otherwise. Even those who’re capable of reading complex text, prefer reading simpler language.
We should, he says,
aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible. We won’t lose credibility by doing so. Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people (emphasis mine).
Natural language processing and SEO
We know that Google now goes beyond merely matching search terms to keywords. Various applications of natural language processing algorithms have been around for a while and, more recently, RankBrain — an artificial intelligence — has been helping to make web search results even smarter.
One possible outcome of this is that we’re closer than ever to the ideal of search engines’ really understanding the content they index and the queries they responding to. But while AI is making incredible leaps, there’s still a long way to go.
Consider the Winograd Schema Challenge. A kind of Turing Test, these simple sentences highlight very subtle complexities in natural language that we humans can take for granted:
The town councillors refused to give the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.
Who feared violence: the town councillors, or the angry demonstrators?
The town councillors refused to give the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.
Who advocated violence: the town councillors, or the angry demonstrators?
Notice that these sentences are identical except for a single word. Even so, that simple change completely alters who “they” refers to. Even for a native English speaker it can take a moment to process, but having done so the difference is intuitively obvious.
But this dramatic difference in meaning is not because of grammar. Again, the sentences are structurally identical. We know the difference because we have a wealth of common sense understanding about how the world works. Without such knowledge, and without unambiguous structural clues, knowing the answer is much less clear.
So not only will your site’s visitors appreciate clearer content, search engines will too.
Tools for clearer writing
Writing more clearly is harder and takes longer, but like any skill it develops with practice. Here are some ideas and tools to get started with.
GDS design principles
The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) won much praise for its design of the GOV.UK website. Brilliantly usable, it’s based on 7 key design principles which can be applied to content writing. For example:
- Start with needs – Know what your users actually want. If you don’t know, research.
- Design with data – Learn from the real world, and apply it. This can be data from web analytics, social sharing data, or even “over the shoulder” session tracking with platforms like Hotjar.
- Do the hard work to make it simple – Don’t take “It’s always been that way” for an answer. It’s usually more and harder work to make things simple, but it’s the right thing to do.
- Understand context – Where and how will your content be read? What devices will it be viewed on? Are visitors likely to be multi-tasking?
Speak in plain Anglish
As George Orwell famously put it,
never use a long word where a short one will do. And interestingly a lot of long, complex-sounding words in English aren’t truly English. Stick with it, I promise this makes sense.
In short, unlike many other European languages English isn’t based on Latin. English is Germanic. It acquired a French (and therefore Latin) influence only around the 11th Century, after the Norman Conquest. The Normans’ influence was greatest on the the ruling classes, so French provided much of the vocabulary for topics like religion, law, and politics.
Anglish is an experiment in re-creating English without the Latin influence. Apart from being a fascinating exercise in itself, it shows how Germanic equivalents of Latinate words are often much shorter and simpler.
Hemingway is well known for his sparse and to-the-point style. As you’d expect, the Hemingway App helps trim the fluff from your writing until it’s clear and easy to read. It does this by encouraging you to avoid adverbs, passive language and complex sentences.
It’s quite brutal and, in my experience, takes some persistence to get used to. Two things are important:
- It takes practice. You need to learn how to re-construct your sentences, and be more direct than you’re used to. The beauty of this is it forces you to clarify your thinking. As Einstein said,
if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
- Don’t take it too literally. At fist you’ll want to get rid of every single “mistake”, but you don’t have to. If you can’t simplify without losing meaning, leave it alone.