SEO Content Readability: 5 Errors That Your Plugin Won’t Catch

To marketers, the term “readability” conjures up images of the well-known WordPress plugin Yoast SEO. If you’ve never used it, this is a Yoast feature that calculates the reading “difficulty” of a piece of writing using a mysterious algorithm.

It then makes suggestions such as shortening sentences, using a more active voice and breaking up large chunks of text with subheadings. It’s even bold enough to place red or orange bullets next to posts it considers algorithmically sub-par, but let’s not go there.

The bottom line for Yoast is that readability is ranked. However, as technology such as NLP advances, the definition of readability evolves (Natural Language Processing). It’s taking on a more human appearance. In this post, I’ll discuss five ways to improve your content’s human readability, which will, in turn, improve its algorithmic readability. They are as follows:

Get rid of the clickbait titles.
Don’t overuse keywords (even if subtle)
Stop over-paragraphing.
Remove the unnecessary bulking of how-to posts.
Refrain from over-formatting.
Associated with mercy

What is the significance of HUMAN READABILITY?

As previously stated, readability is important. They claim greater reading comfort:

Enhances the user experience.
This increases the likelihood of your post ranking well in voice search.
Appeals to search engines, which are becoming more sensitive to what humans consider to be worthwhile writing.
Personally, I’m skeptical of any algorithmic approach to writing. I’m not a fan of the Yoast plugin’s decrees, writing tools like Grammarly, or anything else that tries to interfere with my thoughts while I’m writing (sighs in predictive text).

However, Yoast makes an important point here that is often overlooked in the chaotic box-checking process of SEO writing: your reader is not the search engine itself, but a person expecting a sense of linguistic cohesion. And, thanks to Google’s NLP advancements, you can (read: should) consider the search engine to be a person to some extent.

Focusing on keyword rankings is an effective strategy for driving traffic to your website—but if you lose sight of the fact that you’re writing for readers, not Google, you’re doing it incorrectly. This is the kind of attitude that leads to articles like this one criticizing how search results now appear to cater to the interests of algorithms rather than users.

I’m not kidding. To quote the article’s exasperated author, Nick Slater, writing with only the interests of search engines in mind results in “a masterpiece by SEO writing standards and an absolute turd by regular writing standards.” Unsurprisingly, this stuff irritates people.

Writing with only the interests of search engines in mind produces “…a masterpiece by SEO writing standards and an absolute turd by regular writing standards.”

How to Improve the Readability of Your Content for SEO

On that note, for the sake of your readers’ sanity, here are a few steps you can take to improve your content’s human readability.

Get rid of the clickbait titles.

We’ve all grown accustomed to the internet by this point. Perhaps a dramatic blog post title like “[X number] of Content Marketing Mistakes That Will Blow Your Mind” would have worked in 2010, but now we just roll our eyes and scroll.

The same is true for any overly optimistic prediction of the reader’s reaction: if I see a headline that promises to be “ultimate,” “revealed,” or “revolutionary,” I ignore it. (The same goes for titles that promise unimaginable success as a result of reading that post.)

A little showmanship is acceptable.

It’s fine to keep a little showmanship in a title, but keep it grounded. ‘What You’re Doing Wrong with Your Content Marketing: 5 Common Mistakes,’ as WordStream titles their post on the subject, still addresses the reader directly, even assuming that they’re making mistakes in the first place. However, it does not patronize the reader by stating, “5 Content Marketing Mistakes You’ll NEVER Believe You’re Making.” The distinction, I believe, is obvious.

Make certain that you keep your promise.

My point is that you shouldn’t set expectations that you won’t be able to meet. Consider how you choose your headlines—much like the process of titling a book, what you choose has a significant impact on the reception of a text. (In fact, authors as prolific as Toni Morrison have had their titles changed for commercial reasons by their publishers.)

Your instincts are important.

Others have investigated what makes a good headline: Danny Goodwin previously shared his findings after running A/B tests on headlines for 31 days in an insightful post I recommend. Just keep in mind that, aside from quantifiable metrics and headline analyzers, your instincts (informed by your uniquely human understanding of language) will almost certainly still be correct.

2. Stop the keyword stuffing (even the subtle kind)

Good ol’ keyword stuffing. When keyword stuffing occurs, you’ll be sure keyword stuffing is taking place, because every other phrase will contain the same words, in classic keyword stuffing fashion.

Google’s enigmatic algorithm allegedly now knows better than to use keyword density as an indicator of information quality and relevance, but we’ve all searched for something and come up against a wall of repeated keywords. So what if useful information can be found among all the keywords? I need to be able to find it, and keyword stuffing is preventing me from doing so.

Refrain from over-paragraphing

What exactly is this, a poem?

If not, why are the line breaks there?

Is this something you’re typing on your phone?

Stop confusing your reader!

Micro-paragraphs are extremely distracting when writing a blog post or an email. As soon as they begin to speak, they are abruptly cut off at the windpipe, gaping at you wide-eyed and fleetingly. I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind this tendency (if it’s “better readability,” I weep for the human race), but the good news is that it’s a simple fix.

There is a time and a place for everything.

Simply be more conscious of when you press ‘enter,’ and if, after a second glance, it appears there’s no reason for you to change lines, don’t. Second-guessing yourself is a necessary step toward becoming a better writer, so go ahead and have a full-fledged existential crisis over every minor decision. Congratulations, you are now a writer!

(In all seriousness, if you need a self-editing resource, here it is.)

Consider this example from a blog post about online presence. Every sentence in the red box feels like a profound statement. Is this some sort of list? Are they distinct concepts? What is the most important takeaway from this collection of lines?

Avoid padding out how-to posts for no apparent reason.

People Because people Google everything, you’ll often have to do some mental gymnastics as an SEO writer to come up with effective answers to everyone’s queries: you might be working on “how to be happy” one day and “how to use chopsticks” the next.

You’re no longer in high school.

“How to be happy” might merit a lengthy, meditative piece of writing, but “how to use chopsticks” could probably be accomplished in two or three practical steps. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t high school coursework, and you don’t need to bulk out your writing to meet a word count.

You might come across as condescending.

Over-explaining simple tasks, on the other hand, comes across as patronizing (not to mention boring) and achieves the opposite of user-friendliness. Keep it simple and considerate of your readers and your own time.

(In case you were wondering, “how to be happy” currently has a monthly search volume of 27,000 in the United States, while “how to use chopsticks” has a monthly search volume of 31,000 in the United States, according to Ahrefs. You may believe that people have the wrong priorities, but you could also argue that noodles are a more reliable path to true happiness.)

Avoid over-formatting.

Anxiety about “immobility” can manifest itself as excessive formatting. To improve navigation, headers are made larger and may even be presented in a different font. Great!

Italicize one or two words? Sure.
Is the information broken down into short bullet points? That’s fine.
Occasional bolding to draw attention to important information? That’s great.
But what if half the text is bright blue with hyperlinks, if it looks like a pinata of headings and subheadings exploded, or if five different fonts compete for your attention on a single page? That’s not so good.

Busy content should not be skimmable.

There’s a reason why typography is usually left to the professionals (at least in print): they know how to establish a sense of visual hierarchy, so your attention is drawn exactly where it should be. Overcompensating with excessive formatting is not the way to go for those of us who are not blessed with professional typographic skills. Make the most of your headers and bullets, but if more of your text is formatted then not, you should rethink your strategy.

Relationship with mercy

Finally, while internal and external linking is important, don’t overdo it with the number of links you include in a piece of writing. Ideally, never include more than two links in a single paragraph; otherwise, you risk distracting the reader. If you have a lot of important resources to share, consider including them as recommended reading at the bottom of an article.

Make strategic use of links.

But, more importantly, be cautious about the types of links you include in your posts. You may not have complete control over what you must link to as part of your job, but you do have control over how you use links within the text.

For example, in this post, all links point to

a) The definition of a term to which it is attached, in case clarification is required, b) the source for a specific claim, or c) a more in-depth guide to a related topic I mention in passing. When I mentioned noodles, I didn’t link to a random chopsticks post, awkwardly ignoring it and continuing on, allowing the unacknowledged irrelevant link to silently glare at us both.

Relevance is essential.

You might think that if I worked for a random chopsticks brand, I’d have no choice but to link to them—but then I wouldn’t be writing a marketing post. The link would be relevant because I’d be writing about chopsticks.

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