If you’re like many people, you have a website built in WordPress, and you’re using Yoast’s SEO plugin to help streamline your on-page optimization efforts. Yoast uses a red/yellow/green light system to let you know how well certain things are optimized. One of those factors is something called the “Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score,” and if you’re like many of us, you’ve noticed the light keeps staying yellow.
Here’s the truth about it: it’s not something you need to worry about. We’re about to fill you in on exactly why the Flesch-Kincaid score is a flawed metric for online content, and why it has little to nothing to do with SEO.
What Does the Flesch-Kincaid Score Measure?
The Flesch-Kincaid score measures “readability,” defined as how difficult something is, to read in English. It’s rather like “grade levels” for reading. A score of 90-100 is defined as an easy read, suitable for fifth graders. Low scores of 0.00-30.0 are considered college graduate level.
Yoast has a little conniption if your score goes over about 75. Here’s the problem, though: that’s a seventh grade reading level. Have you talked to a 12- or 13-year-old recently? They’re not very sophisticated people. They’re middle schoolers.
Do you really need to write at a middle school level? No, probably not. With that said, it may depend on your audience — and that’s exactly why we have a problem with the Flesch-Kincaid score.
Why Using the Flesch-Kincaid Score is Misguided
Yoast, of course, is just trying to help you out. They’re trying to help you write clear, readable content that your audience will enjoy. However, using the Flesch-Kincaid score to measure that might not be particularly apt.
It’s Not Even an SEO Ranking Factor
First of all, the Flesch-Kincaid score has absolutely nothing to do with how you’re going to rank in Google. Maybe you could argue that content that’s too complex will drive people away, but again, it depends on who you’re writing for.
But the thing is, Google has never used the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale as a factor in any of their ranking algorithms. You don’t have to write at a sixth grade level to rank. In fact, dumbing things down too much could hurt you if you’re writing for a highly educated or technically proficient audience.
Technicality Depends on Your Audience
Yoast’s use of the Flesch-Kincaid score assumes that you want your content to reach the most generalized mass-market audience that it possibly can. Something written at a sixth or seventh grade level can be read and understood by pretty much anyone, from 12-year-old kids to PhD researchers.
But is it the best choice for your site? Maybe not. Personally, if I go to Google and type in “ecospace utilization by Ediacaran biota,” I’m definitely not looking for anything a sixth grader could understand easily. If you’re writing for an educated audience, or you’re writing for professionals in a certain field, it’s completely okay to use technical jargon, complex sentence structure, rich vocabulary, and other things the Flesch-Kincaid score frowns upon.
Now, if you’re designing a science education site for high school students, maybe Flesch-Kincaid really is something you should pay attention to. But if you’re writing for educated adults, like programmers or physicians, why dumb down your prose to meet some arbitrary metric?
Know Your Audience
This is what it all comes down to: knowing your audience. To write great content that engages your audience, you need to really understand who your audience is, what they’re looking for, and what they enjoy. That takes effort, market research, experimentation, and a lot of thought and consideration. There’s no simplified red light/green light approach to this, which is what Yoast is trying to give you by using the Flesch-Kincaid score. If you’re concerned about your writing style, ask a human being. A real human reader is much more likely to be able to tell you if your prose is a little too James Joyce for their tastes. Software just isn’t that great at judging writing styles.