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Reading Level: Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

There are many theories about whether reading level is a ranking factor. Is it essential in SEO content writing? See what the experts say.

Reading Level: Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

Out of all the ranking factors, reading level is one plagued with misconceptions from those within the SEO community (and those outside of it, too).

Many tools integrate readability into their grading system, such as the Yoast’s SEO WordPress plugin:

Yoast SEO recommendationsScreenshot from Yoast SEO, February 2022

It’s becoming increasingly important to address these myths.

How important is it that you edit and write to perfection to get into the green?

When it comes to reading levels, how much of this is essential to pay attention to?

Can a better readability score actually help boost your rankings?

In this article, we’ll answer whether readability is a Google ranking factor.

The Claim: Reading Level Is A Ranking Factor

Those new to SEO and writing can quickly become borderline-obsessed with getting their readability score into the green with Yoast.

And they’re often when they don’t notice a change in rankings overnight.

But the truth is, reading level is not about rankings, and eliminating passive voice won’t propel you to the top organic position on Page 1.

Neither will writing your content at a Grade 6 level vs. Grade 11.

Really, what’s important when writing and optimizing your content is that you need to understand the intent behind the words you use and make sure it’s right for your target audience.

The Evidence

Let’s start with the first question: Is reading level a ranking factor?

No.

Reading level is not a ranking factor.

On January 23, 2018, in a Google Webmaster Office Hours, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, confirmed that reading level is not a ranking factor.

He was asked about the readability and how Google looks at this.

Mueller responded stating:

“From an SEO point of view, it’s probably not something that you need to focus on. In the sense that, as far as I know, we don’t have the kind of these basic algorithms that just count words and try to figure out what the reading level is based on these existing algorithms.

But it is something that you should figure out for your audience.”

You can watch Mueller’s response below in the Google Webmaster Hangout.

​​Portent ran a study analyzing the reading grade level of 756,297 pieces of content for 30,000 desktop search queries. The study determined there is no correlation between ranking on Google and the reading level of a page.

So, should you care about reading level when it comes to SEO?

Yes! In the same Google Webmaster Hangout, Mueller connected the dots between reading level and search intent:

“So that’s something where I see a lot of issues come up in that a website will be kind of talking past their audience.

So… a common example is a medical site. You want to provide medical information for the general public because you know they’re worried about this. And all of your articles use these medical words that are 20 characters long. Technically, it’s all correct.

You could calculate the reading level score of that content. You come up with a number.

But it’s not a matter of Google using that reading level score and saying, this is good or bad. But rather, does it match what the people are searching for? And, if nobody’s searching for those long words, then nobody’s going to find your content. Or, if they do find your content, they’re going to be like… I don’t know what this means.”

Google has also released a few hints to point toward the idea that reading level is incorporated into the search algorithms.

In December 2010, Google released the “Reading Level” advanced search filter but later removed the reading level filter in May 2015.

More recently, Google has been developing machine learning models like BERT and MUM that aim to understand language and content quality.

But, again, there is no evidence to confirm that reading level is a ranking factor.

Reading level is about understanding your audience and writing for them.

It’s not about the “perfect score.”

Keep an easy-to-read flow using short sentences.

For example, I aim to keep my reading level between grades 6-8 as a guide using the Hemingway App.

Reading Level As A Ranking Signal: Our Verdict

Reading Level: Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

Writing content for your audience requires time, a little TLC, and patience.

But forcing your writing to adapt to a specific reading level isn’t necessary to rank better.

There are many theories floating around about whether reading level is a ranking factor.

You heard it directly from Mueller himself – reading level is not part of the algorithms.


Featured Image: Robin Biong/Search Engine Journal

Ranking Factors: Fact Or Fiction? Let’s Bust Some Myths! [Ebook]
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Anna Crowe

Assistant Editor at Search Engine Journal

Anna is the Assistant Editor for Search Engine Journal. Over the last 10+ years, Anna has successfully been running her ...

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