Admit it…Red bullets in Yoast SEO’s readability tab bugs the hell out of you!
You’d spend hours making edits, desperate to turn every bullet point, green. Nothing less! You’re competing with the big guns and want people to find you on search engines.
And if Yoast’s readability analysis can get you a higher Google ranking, you’d be happy to spend extra time to get green bullet points.
But, could this obsession be counterproductive?
- Does a full score of green bullets really mean your content is easy to read?
- Does Google even use Yoast SEO’s readability standards?
- Is manipulating readability for a machine more important than resonating with real people?
In this post, we’ll examine 9 websites that failed one Yoast readability factor BUT still rank on the first page of Google SERP (search engine results page)!
Readability in the perspective of humans, search engines, and Yoast
Readability is a measure of how easy it is for a person to read and understand a piece of content. It takes into account both the complexity (e.g. use of jargon, choice of sentence structure) and presentation of the content (e.g. typography, layout).
If a human reader takes too long to read your post — either because of badly-structured content or a cluttered design layout — your content is considered hard-to-read.
Search engines and readability
Search users exit web results that are irrelevant to their search and hard to read. If it takes a person minutes to figure out the relevance of your content, they move on to the next search result.
This explains why Google’s algorithm favours easy-to-read content and rewards web pages that fulfil this criterion with higher search positions. That said, easy-to-read content is subjective. You have to consider your target readers’ education background and industry.
Read my earlier post for the list of potential readability ranking signals used by Google.
Yoast SEO readability
Used by over 5 million WordPress websites, including businesses like yours, Yoast SEO is the top plugin for SEO. It includes an analysis panel (at the bottom of your WordPress post/page editor), which gives feedback about content readability and SEO focus keyword.
On the readability tab, Yoast rates your content with colour-coded bullet points and feedback — red reveals a serious problem; orange shows some room for improvement; green is good.
Yet, Yoast’s readability analysis has a few limitations…
Yoast ignores content presentation:
Yoast gauges readability based on content complexity alone. It ignores how your content is presented (e.g. layout and typography), which is a huge factor in readability.
Yoast has limited data on how Google assesses readability:
Like the rest of us, Yoast has no idea how Google’s algorithm measures a web page’s readability. It only knows human-readable content best practices.
Yoast oversimplifies readability best practices:
Yoast quantifies readability best practices into its formula and oversimplifies how actual people read. It doesn’t consider exceptions.
Don’t get me wrong. Yoast’s feedback is backed by solid data. The problem, however, occurs only when writers become a slave to green bullet points and lose sight of what is important — resonating with target readers.
Yoast SEO’s Readability Analysis Factors
Here’s a look at each bullet point for Yoast’s readability analysis. You’ll learn when to ignore the red (or orange) feedback. And you’ll see 10 examples of actual web pages (i.e. Hubspot, Buffer, and Pottermore) — most have high search rankings despite breaking Yoast’s readability recommendation.
Click on each example’s screenshot to zoom in and see Yoast’s bullet feedback. I’ve also included SERP ranking (based on keywords that get traffic) and Facebook engagement data.
To avoid sending artificial search traffic to all website examples, I won’t reveal the actual keywords that send monthly visitors to those examples.
#1 Flesch Reading Ease Test
To get the green bullet, your content has to get a Flesch Reading Ease test score of 60 and above. A score under 60 to the lowest of 50 gets the orange bullet; anything under 50 gets the dreaded red bullet.
People on the web are notorious for scanning content. Most prefer easy-to-read posts. The Flesch Reading Ease test determines how complex a content copy is and scores it on a scale of 0 to 100 (see table below).
|100.00-90.00||5th grade||Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.|
|90.0–80.0||6th grade||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|80.0–70.0||7th grade||Fairly easy to read.|
|70.0–60.0||8th & 9th grade||Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.|
The Flesch Reading Ease test oversimplifies readability and is, as such, an inaccurate measure. The formula calculates complexity based only on two factors:
- the average number of syllables per word (multisyllabic words penalised)
- the average number of words per sentence (long sentences penalised)
Long sentences and words with more than one syllable are not always hard to understand. But the Flesch-Kincaid formula penalises both. What’s more… there is no proof that Google uses Flesch to determine readability.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Hootsuite & Way Of Ninja
Ignore when using numerous multisyllabic words
Consider the words, “interesting”, “watermelon”, “ingredients”, “society”, and “imagination”. Using them lowers your Flesch Reading Ease score. In fact, these words are common in English but get zero solely due to the number of syllables — penalty for words with more than two syllables.
While “green spheroid fruit with black stripes” will earn you points with Flesch, just use the word “watermelon”.
Don’t avoid simple multisyllabic words just to get a green bullet. It makes your writing awkward and turns your readers off.
Ignore when using industry-specific terms (that resonates with target readers)[Example] — 6 Brand Certifications to Make You a Better Social Media Marketer
- Yoast [Flesch]: 47 — failed due to numerous multisyllabic marketing terms
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: 6,391
This Hootsuite post (seen above) fails mainly because Kaylynn Chong uses terms like “digital marketing ecosystem”, “Analytics”, and “Instagram marketing”. All of these have at least three syllables and are, thus, penalized by the Flesch test.
But, there is no real readability issue! The post is easy to understand for both marketers and business owners. In fact, it is doing well on both Google and Facebook.
So ignore the red/orange bullet.
Always consider your target readers and their industry. If they resonate with industry terms, use them. Don’t deliberately make edits to manipulate your Flesch score. Dumbing down content in this context will cost you potential clients.
Ignore when using transliterated terms and names[Example] — Where can I learn ninjutsu of the real ninja?
- Yoast [Flesch]: 29.9 — failed due to numerous transliterated Japanese terms and names
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: unknown (original post link changed; old FB stats lost)
This Way Of Ninja post I wrote featured long transliterated Japanese terms and organisation names. I had no choice but to use them so that my readers knew the instructors, organizations, and martial arts terms in Japan.
Omitting the terms would have made the post pointless. But Yoast SEO penalised the content for the multisyllabic transliterated words and correspondingly long sentences.
The high rankings on Google (and old social stats) suggest that enough people read the content with no problems. Again, ignore the red/orange bullet in such as a situation.
Ignore false flags: Long References, HTML code, and WordPress shortcodes[Example] — Where can I learn ninjutsu of the real ninja?
- Yoast [Flesch]: 29.9 — failed due to lengthy citations with multisyllabic titles (false flag)
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: unknown (original link to post changed, old FB stats lost)
If you include long references at the end of your post, it will affect your Flesch score.
Refer to the same Way Of Ninja example. They contain citations within a WordPress shortcode.
Flesch penalises citations that contain 20 words before the full stop (i.e. period) as they are mistaken for sentences. Likewise, references that include three (or more) syllable words.
The same goes for HTML tables with huge datasets.
Ignore when long sentences are appropriate
Refer to #2 — Too many long sentences.
#2 Too many long sentences
To get a green bullet, limit long sentences to no more than 25% of your total sentences in a post. How long is long? Sentences with more than 20 words.
People tend to lose track of your point when reading an overly long sentence. This causes them to re-read the same sentence, which can induce eye fatigue.
But, posts made up of only short sentences are sometimes HARD-to-read. Breaking ideas into shorter sentences can interrupt reading flow. The monotony of endless short sentences can also affect attention span. So moderation of sentence length is crucial.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Hubspot & B2C
Ignore when your writing style involves long sentences and quoted sources[Example] — 16 of the Best Shopify Stores to Inspire Your Own
- Yoast [long sentences]: 47.8% of the sentences contain more than 20 words — failed
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: 69 (recently published – 3 April 2018)
Caroline Forsey’s skilfully uses punctuation to make her point clear, and long sentences easy to read. Still, she runs afoul of Yoast’s limit on long sentences with more than 20 words.
Her writing style and quoted statements (from several Shopify stores) contribute to the length of her sentences.
If you’re quoting someone or naturally write longer sentences, ignore the orange/red bullet. But use punctuation to make those sentences easy to understand.
Ignore when writing technical or complicated topics[Example] — How to Get the Best Results with Google AdSense Video Ads
- Yoast [long sentences]: 37.7% of the sentences contain more than 20 words — failed
- SERP Ranking: Not found in the top 100 (recently published – 1 April 2018)
- FB Engagement: negligible (recently published – 1 April 2018)
Refer to the underlined sentence (in the screenshot), which can be broken into shorter sentences.
But, look at my attempt to do so below. The idea feels interrupted.
“In Adsense, however, your ad groups will utilize audience interest to determine ad placement. They will also use active intent in researching certain products and past relationships with your site to determine ad placement. ”
Long sentences can often express complicated ideas without breaking flow. This aids in the reader’s understanding.
So ignore the red/orange bullet if a long sentence conveys your thoughts better than a few short ones. Proper punctuation will make it readable.
Ignore false flags — Long References, HTML code, and WordPress shortcodes
Refer to #1 — Flesch Reading Ease Test. The false flags are the same.
#3 Subheading followed by too many words
To get a green bullet, limit content to no more than 300 words for every subheading.
Subheadings let readers scan and know the gist of your content. Keeping the word-count short under each subheading makes it convenient for the reader to scroll back (if they forget your sub-point).
But, subheadings aren’t the only way to section content and make it scannable.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Examples: Popular Chips Daily & Pottermore
Ignore when you include visual references (i.e. images, charts, videos, social embeds)[Example] — Was the #SGBudget2018 Campaign Effective? Let the Data Speak.
- Yoast [subheadings]: 2 subheadings followed by over 300 words — failed
- SERP Ranking: Unknown (searches for this one-off event has diminished)
- FB Engagement: 131 — good
Rachel Lee’s post shows how visual references, like charts and highlighted statistics, can work like subheadings.
Even though she goes over 300 words after each subheading, the images (inserted amongst the text) give your eyes a point of reference — just like subheadings do.
This is the presentation aspect of readability that Yoast SEO ignores…
Ignore when you’re writing a short story[Example] — Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
- Yoast [subheadings]: 6 subheadings followed by over 300 words of content — failed
- SERP Ranking: Page one (top position)
- FB Engagement: 72,667 (see for yourself!)
J.K. Rowling’s Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry literary write-up goes well beyond the 300 word-limit for six subheadings. But no one is complaining about it being hard to read!
The backstory of the American wizarding school got nearly 73 thousand shares and likes on Facebook! And it is found at the top of Google’s search results for a relevant keyword query.
First, subheadings make little sense for short works of fiction, even in the form of a blog post. Next, if you do use them, it’s okay to go way beyond Yoast’s 300-word limit for each subheading.
Go ahead and ignore the red or orange bullet.
#4 Sentence beginnings — same word at the start of consecutive sentences
To get a green bullet, your content shouldn’t have three (or more) consecutive sentences that begin with the same word.
Consecutive repetition of sentence beginnings makes a post annoying to read.
Sometimes, repetition helps the reader with understanding and content resonance.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Example: Buffer
Ignore when emphasising a point
It’s okay to repeat sentence beginnings to emphasise a point, especially as an introductory hook. It can help readers relate to your content emotionally.
Ignore when making lists separated by bullets or semicolons[Example] — The New Facebook Algorithm: Secrets Behind How It Works and What You Can Do To Succeed
- Yoast [same beginnings]: 4 consecutive sentences starting with the same word
- SERP Ranking: Page one (top position)
- FB Engagement: 4,979
Yoast SEO flagged Buffer’s post for using the same word, “what”, at the beginning of each list item. Should Brian Peters have used other words to replace “what”?
No. “What” serves a legitimate purpose here. It also draws attention to the questions readers need to reflect on.
Keep in mind that Brian’s post was the most widely-shared article on Buffer in the past year.
#5 Not enough transition words (or phrases)
To get a green bullet, use a transition word or phrase in at least 30% of your total sentences.
Transition words and phrases — like “most importantly”, “firstly”, “therefore”, “due to”, “perhaps” and “above all” — make your content flow better. They connect concepts and allows the reader to anticipate the next sentence (or paragraph). This helps the reader process concepts quicker.
Yoast SEO plugin factors in only a limited list of transition words/phrases. Using anything else won’t be counted in your score. Also, deliberately using transition words/phrases — when they don’t fit — makes your content clunky.
Lastly, there is a category of transition words called fuzzy signals that make your content sound unsure and less credible. These are words like “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “probably”.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Example: MINDBODY Online
Ignore when writing sales or product copy[Example] — Yoga studio software, MINDBODY
- Yoast [transition word]: 13% of sentences contain a transition word/phrase, which isn’t enough to pass.
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: 868
The content copy on MINDBODY’s yoga studio software landing page is short, tight, and to-the-point. That’s how online sales copy ought to be.
Adding transition words and phrases would impede conversions in this case. That’s the opposite of what readable content is supposed to do.
After all, MindBody’s landing page is on page one of Google SERP for a non-branded keyword.
Ignore the orange/red bullet for your copywriter’s sake!
#6 Excessive passive voice
To get a green bullet, limit the use of passive voice to no more than 10% of total sentences in your post. Use active voice for the rest of your content.
It is more intuitive to process an active voice sentence structure than passive. That’s because the active voice expresses the sequence of events in a straightforward manner. The sentence begins with the doer, followed by the doer’s action, and then the doer’s target.
Moreover, the passive voice sounds impersonal and wordy.
|“The use of passive voice is limited to no more than 10% of total sentences in a post by Yoast.” (with the doer, “Yoast”)
“The use of passive voice is limited to no more than 10% of total sentences in a post.” (without the doer)
|“Yoast limits the use of passive voice to no more than 10% of total sentences in a post.”|
The active voice isn’t always the best choice for all types of content.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — Example: English Heritage & Yocale
Ignore when you have no information about the doer[Example] — STONEHENGE, English Heritage
- Yoast [passive voice]: 19% of sentences contain passive voice
- SERP Ranking: Page one
- FB Engagement: 3,236
The only way to convey information, when you don’t know the identity of a doer, is to use the passive voice.
|“It was built in several stages” (quoted from English Heritage)||“Early humans (presumably) built it in several stages” (active voice edit of English Heritage’s original quote)|
Forcing yourself to use active voice means speculating who built the Stonehenge. Also, the active voice puts the emphasis on the builders rather than the point that it was built in stages.
Ignore when the doer is not important
|“All cadets are required to assemble at the courtyard at 5.00 am.”||“The Military Academy requires all cadets to assemble at the courtyard at 5.00 am.”|
|“The participants were then asked to complete a survey after the 15-minute running test.”||“Harvard researchers then asked the participants to complete a survey after the 15-minute running test.”|
Ignore when the emphasis is on the target (and not the doer)[Example] — Our Team, Yocale
- Yoast [passive voice]: 4.1% of sentences contain passive voice — green bullet
- SERP Ranking: Unknown
- FB Engagement: negligible
Although Yocale got Yoast’s green bullet, I wanted to use it as an example of an acceptable use of the passive voice.
Do note that the poor SERP rankings and social stats are normal for pages about the staff. Most people rarely search or share that information.
|“Arash is honored to have been named the Business in Vancouver’s Top Forty under 40 business executive.” (quoted from Yocale Business)||“Vancouver’s Top Forty under 40 named Arash as one of the business executives in its list.” (active voice edit of Yocale Business’ original quote)|
|“If you’ve been injured by the defective product, please contact us for a free legal consultation.”||“If the defective product injures you, please contact us for a free legal consultation.”|
While both examples mean the same thing, there are nuanced differences in what each implies. The passive voice puts the injured customer first; the active voice implies that the customer’s injury is a secondary concern.
Likewise, in the Yocale example, the CEO, Arash, is the focus.
Ignore when the statement is a general truth
|“Rules are made to be broken”||(not even going to try)|
#7 Long Paragraphs
To get a green bullet, limit every paragraph to no more than 150 words.
Walls of text scare readers (and scanners) away. In addition, people tend to backtrack while reading because there isn’t a visible line-break in a long paragraph that acts as a point of reference. This makes the reading experience tiring.
When to ignore the red/orange bullet point — No examples
There are few situations that warrant a paragraph of more than 150 words (especially when writing on the internet). Even academic and literary blogs benefit from shorter paragraphs.
Ignore false flags: WordPress Shortcodes with lengthy datasets
Again, Yoast regards long content within certain WordPress Shortcodes (especially if you’re using custom plugins) as a full paragraph. Ignore the red bullet in such a situation.
Even though Yoast SEO’s readability analysis gives feedback based on best practices, it has limits. There is no need to get all bullets to turn green.
If you have no experience at writing for the web, Yoast’s readability advice can be helpful. And if you’re suffering from fatigue, it points out common faults, which makes your editing process easier.
But, never ever become a slave to Yoast’s green bullet points!
I’ve shown examples — Hubspot, Hootsuite, Way Of Ninja, and more — that took one (or two) red/orange bullet(s) in the chest. Still, most of them rank high on Google for traffic keywords; they’re widely-shared on Facebook. That’s because these sites focus on easy-to-read content that fits their target reader’s interests, education, and industry.
No doubt, search rankings fluctuate due to a large list of factors (e.g. backlinks, site speed, and more). But, easy-to-read content is among the most important factors that help search users decide if your web page is relevant.
So if you insist on getting a perfect Yoast score — at the cost of actual readability — neither your readers nor Google will reward you for it.
Lastly, if you’ve hired a competent copywriter and content writer, trust them to bend the “rules”.
Above all, let your content resonate with your target readers, NOT Yoast or Google. Use the bullet points only as a guide!