Readability Scores, SEO, and Legal Blogging

A lot of attorneys have fallen prey to an online marketing misconception that has taken the search engine optimization (SEO) world by storm in the past few years. That myth is that you should write as simply as possible because objective readability scores can directly determine your online rankings.

It’s not true.

Most of the time, at least.

But some attorneys should follow what the myth says, anyway.

But not for the reasons it says.

Obviously, it’s complicated. So we’re here to explain.

Your Site’s SEO Score, Readability, and Yoast

There are an estimated 200 signals that Google uses to rank a page for its relevance and importance for a given search query. Each of these signals is weighted differently. Some signals can drastically alter the rankings, like:

Others barely tilt the scales, at all, and are basically tiebreakers.

The SEO world is split as to whether readability is one of these 200 signals. Specifically, some SEO pros think that Google pulls the scores generated from Flesch-Kincaid tests and uses them as a ranking factor.

Suspiciously, most of the people touting readability scores as a ranking signal have only been doing so since the middle of 2016. That was when Yoast, the popular SEO-plugin for WordPress sites, rolled out a content analysis tool.

One of the aspects of that content analysis tool, of course, was a readability score. That readability score was, of course, generated by a Flesch-Kincaid test. Yoast gave a thumbs-up to posts with high readability scores because they were easy to read, and frowned upon articles with low scores that required at least a high school reading level.

Yoast readability test approves high readability scores

Yoast never said that it specifically included its readability scoring tool because it had discovered that Google used it as a ranking signal. They could have said this, but they didn’t, and lawyers know how important that omission can be.

SEO professionals, however, aren’t too familiar with the canons of statutory interpretation. They ran ahead with the idea that Yoast’s inclusion of the readability tool meant that readability really mattered for a site’s SEO score, and the myth was born.

Readability Scores and User Experience

What Yoast has said, though, is that writing online content with a good readability score enhances user experience on your site. By writing simply, you cater to more people and deter and alienate fewer readers with complicated words and sentence structure. This sends fewer readers back to the search engine results page (SERP) to look for another website to answer their question, which enhances your site’s reader metrics – like time spent on page and bounce rate – and indirectly scores points in an SEO world that is increasingly interested in how users interact with webpages.

In short, Yoast added its readability tool not because readability directly impacts a page’s SEO score and ranking, but because a readability score can give you a sign that your written content is indirectly impacting a page’s ranking through reader metrics.

Readability Scores Should Be Appropriate to Your Viewers

This begs one initial question and one follow-up question:

  1. Who are you targeting with your law firm’s content?
  2. Do your readability scores reflect this targeted audience?

At Myers Freelance, our targeted audience is the legal professional. We aim to explain search engine marketing news and SEO techniques to lawyers. That means cutting out the marketing jargon, but does not mean dumbing down the content to the lowest common denominator of the U.S. population. We use elegant language and complex sentence structures because sometimes that’s what it takes to explain difficult ideas, and because we know you can handle it.

Therefore, our blog posts often “fail” Yoast’s readability tool, and frequently score in the “college graduate” range of the Flesch-Kincaid test.

And we’re fine with that because our targeted audience is filled with college graduates. If we wrote posts that scored “well” on Yoast’s readability tool, we’d probably start seeing our web traffic decline as lawyers read our hyper-simple content and feel like we’re being condescending.

Aiming for high readability scores in legal blog posts can be condescending

Your law firm, however, likely targets a different clientele. It may even target different clienteles if you practice in more than one legal field.

Therefore, you should pay appropriate attention to readability scores for your website’s content, based on your targeted audience.

An excellent example is a criminal defense lawyer who represents people accused of a wide variety of crimes:

  • Content dealing with violent crimes and property crimes, like robbery, murder, and shoplifting, should be easy to read and score higher than 80 on the Flesch-Kincaid test. This content is appropriate for people reading below a 6th grade level which is, statistically speaking, your targeted audience for these offenses.
  • Content dealing with white collar crimes like embezzlement or bank fraud, on the other hand, should probably score lower on the Flesch-Kincaid test because those clients are likely to be far more educated.

Because, in the end, Google and other search engines are increasingly noting what readers have to say about a website, so catering to those readers with your writing style is a no-brainer.

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