Do you know how well your university website scores for readability?
We carried out a readability audit of 20 university websites, UK-wide, to see how well they were doing. We reviewed homepages, an arts-based undergraduate course, the research page and international student content.
Sad to say, the picture isn’t great.
Across all categories, none of the universities reached ‘easy’ to understand. All content is ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’. This means you need to already be at university or have graduated to make sense of it. International audiences who may not speak English as a first language could really struggle.
What is readability?
Readability assesses how easy your content is to understand (using the Flesch Kincaid Readability Ease), grades it against US school levels and provides insights into the make up of your content (long sentences, numbers of words etc). We used the WebFX readability tool for this study. Each page is given a score.
|Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease||Grade
|100.00–90.00||6 (11)||Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.|
|90.0–80.0||7 (12)||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|80.0–70.0||8 (13)||Plain English. Fairly easy to read.|
|70.0–60.0||9 (14)||Plain English. Fairly easy to read.|
|60.0–50.0||10 (15)||Fairly difficult to read.|
|50.0 – 40.0||11 (16)||Fairly difficult to read.|
|40.0–30.0||12 (17)||Difficult to read.|
|30.0–0.0||13 (18+)||Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.|
“As a University we need to write well”
We often hear the argument that simplifying your language will somehow undermine your reputation as a university.
But it’s just not true. Readability is an important part of improving the accessibility of your content. If you write clearly, use short sentences and jargon-free language, you’re going to make it easier for everyone to understand what you are saying. Also (though this shouldn’t be the only reason you care about this) come 23 September 2020, you are legally required to make your content accessible.
We need to become confident about writing for our users and ignore internal tensions around making our content sound intelligent. All we do then is exclude people.
What’s a good readability age to aim for?
There’s no hard and fast rule. Most universities in the study ended up with a grade level that meant their content was broadly accessible to 13-14 year olds. However, the ease of readability and percentage of complex words and sentences often reached levels for over 16 year olds.
While this might not seem like a bad result, we should remember that even though someone might have a high reading age, they don’t necessarily want to read at this level all the time. Why not aim to get your Flesch Kincaid readability ease to between 60-80 and truly help users to access your content?
In some areas of the site you might aim for lower reading levels. Research and postgraduate study often contain more technical language which results in an artificially high score. But content for international visitors could comfortably aim for grade 8 (13 year olds).
Are there readability differences between different types of content?
We were interested to see whether there were differences between content types across the sites. Is international content simpler than research content for example? You would hope so, right?
This is not the case.
Half of the universities surveyed presented content that was harder to read to their international audience. The percentage of complex words was around 20-25%.
Even at undergraduate level, there were some really complex course profiles. Choosing a university is a big decision and no-one will thank you for making them wade through difficult descriptions.
The homepages of all universities showed issues with ease of reading and had high percentages of complex words. In what is often seen as the front door to your content, it’s worrying to see levels that might dissuade people from exploring further.
You can see the results of the full study.
Commission a readability study
Do you need us to help you assess your readability in more depth? We can review your site and provide recommendations to help you improve your content. We can also work with you to improve key content too. Get in touch.