Writing for Readability and SEO

This is the last post in a series about rewriting content. Though you’re welcome to read it by itself, you might want to read the first four posts first: One, Two, Three, and Four.

Now that we’ve fixed our page so that it’s easier to read, we need to make sure it’s easy to find. When we talk about making things easy to find, we really mean making them easy to find by Google, as more people find our content on the website via Google than they do any other source. Writing easy to find content is one aspect of Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

Writing for SEO

Soon, we’ll be adding a new tool to the Drupal edit interface to help you perform a keyword analysis. To use it, you’ll simply edit a page, then scroll all the way to the bottom:

The Drupal content analysis box

After we turn it on, if your user has the correct role, you’ll see that Content analysis tab. Let’s start with doing a Quick SEO analysis, and put a phrase in the box. I’ll use “Where to print”, since that’s something I think people might google to find out where to print. Then click the button.

Content Analysis Results page

Your results will pop over the page, and be very hard to miss. But don’t worry – if you accidentally close that popover, the results will still be in the page. Let’s look at each of the sections in the results.

Page Title – The title is probably the most important place to put important keywords, but it’s important not to make it too long. Our current title is “TitanPrint”. That’s also something that people might google, especially as we try to message out about TitanPrint. So I’m ok with it, and we’ll leave this alone.

Body – The body is the second best place to put your important keywords and phrases. We’re missing my phrase entirely. So I should probably fix that. Let’s rework the second to last sentence:

You can use your print allocation at locations around campus.

And instead we can write:

Curious where to print? View print locations to across campus.

And of course we’ll link print locations to to the proper page.

Meta Keywords – We don’t use these. They’re generally ignored.

Meta Description – When you search for something, Google helpfully tries to use a snippet of the page to give you a preview of what’s on the page. If you’re finding that snippet to be unhelpful, you can enter a description that Google may use instead. If you’d like to enter one, check under the “Optional Fields” tab at the bottom of the page, and fill out the Search Engine Summary field.


In the popover, there was another tab labeled readability, which provides a series of different reading level scores. Depending on your content these may vary wildly, so it’s usually best to just use the average.

The reading level content analysis interface

Our reading level has an average of 8.3 – pretty close to what HemingwayApp told us. This interface isn’t as friendly as HemingwayApp, and doesn’t provide live feedback, but it saves you a lot of copying and pasting, so we encourage you to give it a try.

That’s it!

We’re almost done testing content analysis, so hopefully by the time you read this post you’ll be able to use it. If you have any trouble finding it, or using any of the tools we’ve covered in these posts, please, please, please contact us at webmaster@lanecc.edu and we’ll help you out. Also don’t hesitate to contact us for additional help with SEO – we have a bunch of information from Google Analytics that we’d be happy to share.

And be on the lookout for some upcoming sessions where we rework some content together, live, in person. Keep checking the announcements box on the Drupal dashboard right after you log in.

Hard Sentences & Tone

Need a review? Check out parts one, two, or three first.

While we’ve made some big improvements, our page still sounds institutional and still has some pretty complex sentences in it. Let’s start in HemingwayApp (here’s the text, if you’d like to follow along)  and check out our list of things to be concerned about:

  • 6 hard to read sentences
  • 2 very hard to read sentences
  • 5 uses of passive voice

Let’s do the very hard to read sentences first, since they’re our biggest problem. Here’s the first:

Print jobs are sent from workstations in these labs or your computer to a print release station, a print cloud, or directly to a machine, where jobs are released and paid for using your TitanPrint credits.

Usually when HemingwayApp finds something complex it’s because of the number of ideas expressed. Let’s break this sentence up:

Print jobs are sent from workstations in these labs or your computer to a print release station, a print cloud, or directly to a machine. Jobs are then released and paid for using your TitanPrint credits.

Fixed! On to the next one:

Once your print allocation is used, you must add funds to your TitanPrint account to continue printing by using a credit card or a print card purchased from the Titan Store.

Again, we see there’s two distinct ideas here. The first is that once your credits are gone you’ll need to add more to continue printing. The second is that you can add credits either online or at the TitanStore. So let’s split this sentence as well:

Once your print allocation is used, you must add funds to your TitanPrint account to continue printing. Funds can be added with a credit card or a print card purchased from the Titan Store.

No more very hard sentences, and we’re down to grade 8! Let’s tackle some of the merely hard sentences:

When you print a document from your lab computer, or laptop on the campus network, your print is routed to the nearest available printer.

can be simplified to:

When you print a document, your print is routed to the nearest available printer.

We lose a little bit of information here, because we’re not explicitly saying a computer must be on the network, but many students won’t understand what that means anyway, and the idea that printing needs to be done from campus is implied.

If you are in a heavy traffic location you will then need to release your job by logging into your TitanPrint account.

can be simplified to:

If printers are busy, you may need to release your job by logging into your TitanPrint account.

And this:

Color printing costs $.25 (twenty-five cents) per side of paper (resulting in $.495 per page if duplex / double sided).

can be simplified to:

Color printing costs $.25 per page ($.495 if double sided).

To make sure the decimal point is seen, we should write $0.25 and $0.495. So let’s fix that too. This next sentence:

Once your print allocation is used, you must add funds to your TitanPrint account to continue printing.

can be simplified to:

If you run out of credits, you must add funds to your TitanPrint account to continue printing.

Together, that gets us down to a 7th grade reading level – pretty close to our target. Let’s take a look at passive voice sentences (note that the above fixes fixed one of those for us too). If you’re not familiar with passive voice, here’s two sentences:

  1. “I’m going to throw the ball across the room.”
  2. “The ball is going to be thrown across the room.”

The second is clearly a much weaker sentence, but it’s the type of detached writing that’s often seen in academic journals. We want to avoid it wherever we can, because it’s boring to read.

The easiest to fix is “Funds can be added…”. Let’s have the reader perform the action, and instead say “You can add funds…”

Although that technically gets us under the suggested limit for passive voice use, let’s fix one more thing:

You will be charged $.07 (seven cents) per side of paper with a $.005 discount for duplex printing. Color printing costs $.25 per page ($.495 if double sided).

The troublesome part is “will be”, but we can do more than just fix passive voice here. Let’s make those two sentences work together a little better:

Each black and white page costs $0.07 per page, while color printing costs $0.25 per page. Double sided (duplex) pages receive a half cent discount per page.

While we’ve made some big improvements, our page still sounds a little institutional. So let’s look at the tone, using a Tone Analyzer. Go ahead and paste our text directly into the box and click Analyze.

Right now our text is 73% social and 26% writing tone. Writing tone is a little more formal. In our case, the words that are causing the Writing tone are Tentative and Analytical – not necessarily good things. Where possible, we should strive for text that’s friendly, almost conversational, but authoritative. That sort of tone is my goal in these posts – we’re having a conversation, but I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

The bottom half of the tone analyzer has some suggestions on how you can adjust your text. You can try clicking on some of the words to see suggestions. I didn’t find the suggested words very helpful here, but it did make clear that the reason we sound tentative is because we keep having these hesitant sentences – things like “if” and “or” that make it seem like we’re never confident in what we write.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about that, due to the nature of what we’re writing about. But we can make our page sound a little more conversational by adding contractions. Just a simple change like “you are” to “you’re” helps make the text seem less academic. Don’t over do it, of course – the first time I catch a “y’all” in one of our pages, I’ll be less than happy to say the least – but try to write how you talk.

After all those changes, I ran through the text one more time, finding more ways to reduce the length of our content. That includes restructuring the first two paragraphs, so that the first one introduces TitanPrint, while the second one provides a high level overview of how it works. And now that our sentences are simpler, it’s easy to remove the last pair of adverbs. Here’s our final result:

Print Final

And, of course, our final text.

To summarize:

  • Split complex sentences up. It will say the same thing, but be easier to read.
  • To keep your sentences interesting, avoid using the passive voice

If you’re really passionate about language, you’re probably tempted to keep going, and keep rewriting. Believe me, I understand. This page is at least two grade levels higher than I’d like. There’s another dozen changes to make. But there’s a lot of other pages to work on, and writing on the web is all about maximizing the use of our time.

Next time, in the last post of this series, we’ll talk a little bit about writing for Search Engine Optimization and take a quick preview of some of the tools we’ll be introducing soon to help you write better right within Drupal.

Simplifying the Text

Need a quick review? Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.

Last post I mentioned that we’d be using HemingwayApp to make some improvements to our page. First, a quick overview of some features of HemingwayApp. On the right, there’s basic statistics about our page. If you plug in the text from the page (and you should! This post will make a lot more sense if you follow along!), you’ll see that there’s 355 words at a grade 12 reading level. Just below that, color coded to help you find them, are some things to avoid:

  • 3 hard to read sentences
  • 8 very hard to read sentences
  • 3 phrases with simpler alternatives
  • 3 adverbs
  • 8 uses of passive voice

Before we set about tackling them all, let’s first see if we can’t reduce the overall number of words. There’s a basic rule of thumb in editing (from an excellent book!) that says 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. We’re at 355 words now, let’s get down to below 319. Please forgive my touchpad picture editing skills!

Page with some words crossed out

If you’re following along, you can copy the text from here, or you can make the edits yourself.

With just those edits HemingwayApp says we’re at 305 words at an 11th grade reading level. That’s a pretty big improvement already, and we haven’t changed the content of the page at all. We’ve also improved on the list of things to look out for:

  • 3 hard to read sentences
  • 6 very hard to read sentences (down from 8)
  • 2 phrases with simpler alternatives (down from 3)
  • 3 adverbs
  • 6 uses of passive voice (down from 8)

Rather than tackle those in order, let’s pick the low hanging fruit. Adverbs are usually easy to deal with, so we’ll start there.

Adverbs can be a great way to clarify meaning, but they’re often just filler words (students looking to make their essays longer rejoice!). Look at the phrase “your print will automatically be routed” – HemingwayApp wants us to eliminate automatically, and it’s right – that word doesn’t help us at all, so we should cut it. The other two adverbs are both the word “directly’, which we’ll keep for now, since in both places it provides some clarification.

On to the simpler alternatives suggestions. Mouse over each one (they’re in purple) to see what HemingwayApp suggests. They’re not all great suggestions, but “many departmental computer labs” is better than “a number of the departmental computer labs” and “Or” is simpler than “Alternatively”. Just like that, we’re at Grade 10. We now have 0 phrases with simpler alternatives, we’re under the suggested limit for adverbs, and we’ve reduced the number of very hard to read sentences.

We’ve made quite a few changes, so let’s go through and make sure everything reads right. This time we’re looking for tense, voice, and flow. We want to make sure sentences in the same paragraph use the same tense, since its difficult reading when one sentence talks about something in the present, and the next talks about something in the past.

With voice, we want to be consistent. Right now it’s a mix of 2nd person (“You will”) and 3rd person (“The student will”). We don’t have a hard rule about when to use each, but you definitely don’t want to mix them. Since we want our page to be conversational, let’s use 2nd person.

Last we’ll look for flow. Do the sentences and paragraphs all sound good together? Does it sound like it was written by one person? Does it feel right? This is also a good time to make sure we’re using appropriate vocabulary (like “term” instead of “quarter”).

Doing the whole page in a blog post would be very boring, so I’ll use this example paragraph:

TitanPrint is a printing service available to all enrolled students at Lane Community College. TitanPrint provides students the use of several printers and copiers both color and black and white in computer labs, the Library, and many departmental computer labs.

First, let’s switch this to use 2nd person.

TitanPrint is a printing service available to you as an enrolled student at Lane Community College. TitanPrint provides you the use of several printers and copiers both color and black and white in computer labs, the Library, and many departmental computer labs.

Now we need to fix the second sentence, which is very difficult (it’s highlighted pink in HemingwayApp). “…color and back and white…” is a very complex phrase, so we’ll first cut that. We’re not losing anything, because color options are addressed further down the page. Then, we’ll simplify the locations, since there’s no reason to list all the locations here when the locations are also listed on the Print Locations page, linked at the bottom of this page. That leaves us with this:

TitanPrint is a printing service available to you as an enrolled student at Lane Community College. TitanPrint provides you the use of several printers and copiers across campus.

Rewriting for those three things helped me to eliminate a passive voice use and cut quite a few more words. Some of those words included the instructional text about using your L Number and passphrase on the account page. Though you can’t see it, that’s actually repetitive, since the account login screen provides the same text. Here’s the fully rewritten page, applying changes like those I made to the first paragraph:

Page at the end of this post

And the complete text for it.

We’re down to 281 words, and at just a 9th grade reading level – a substantial improvement.

To summarize:

  • Avoid adverbs
  • Use consistent tense and voice
  • Make sure your content flows together
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
  • Shoot for at least a 10% reduction in your word count on your second draft
  • Use tools to help you rewrite – many of your mistakes are going to be invisible to you as the author otherwise.

Finding our Page & Some Quick Fixes

As mentioned in the last post, we’re going to fix one of the 5800 pages on the website. The page we’re working is on loan to us from the fine folks in charge of print management.

Before you work on any web page, you want to make sure you understand the purpose of the page. First, a quick overview of how printing works at Lane. Each student receives a certain amount of money for printing. After that money is gone, students add more money to their account if they need to print more. So the purpose of this page is to help people find printers, learn what printing costs, and to add money to their accounts.

Alright, so let’s look at the existing landing page:

The current print landing page
Currently we’re at 357 words at a Grade 12 reading level – ouch.

You may have noticed the text in that picture was a little small (you can read the entire text here if you’d like). But there’s advantages to small text like this. You and I are highly motivated readers. After all, this is “our” page, and we’re going to pay attention to every little detail. But our actual readers aren’t motivated. In fact, they’re likely to skim in an F shaped pattern, reading as little as is reasonable. When the text is small, we’re forced to skip over the text and focus on the bigger picture (you can zoom out on any page by pressing ctrl-minus on a PC, or cmd-minus on a Mac).

What catches your eye on that page?

My eye goes straight to that huge orange button on the right hand side. That button is the Call to Action (CTA) for this page. If at all possible, you want to make sure your page always has a CTA. It doesn’t need to be a giant button like this, it could just be a link with some white space to make it stand out. This page makes a reasonable assumption that the majority of visitors are looking to recharge their print accounts.

What catches your eye next?

I don’t know about you, but I see the a variant of TitanPrint written no less than 5 times in big, huge letters.
Print Landing Page with TitanPrint - this includes text that wasn't in the previously linked text, which did not include menus
There’s some circumstances when that’s ok, but in this case it’s unnecessary. Let’s get rid of a few. First to go? The one on top of the box in the top right corner – that button can stand by itself. Second? The orange one at the top of the page. Let’s instead replace it with with the first sentence of the first paragraph: “Welcome to printing at Lane Community College”. But let’s also get rid of “Welcome to” – using “Welcome to” on any web page usually ends up feeling superficial rather than friendly.

Picture of the landing page with suggestions incorporated
And that’s as far as we’re going with this post. So, to summarize:

  • Know the purpose of this page
  • Make sure your page has a Call to Action that meets that purpose
  • Make sure to take a step back from your page and see how it looks

Next up we’ll use HemingwayApp to make some quick edits to the page text.

Content Redevelopment

Welcome to the first of a series of posts on rewriting your content to be friendlier, easier to read, and easier for search engines to find.

As employees of an educational institution, we’re constantly reading and writing to our peers. I know that I spend a lot of time in Groupwise – I read 16,134 words in emails just this week – and we’re only three days in! If my emails were a final paper for a class, they’d be an A+ guaranteeing 66 pages of Times New Roman, double spaced. Of course, like many of us, I’m on a few committees as well. There’s a ton of words in minutes and papers read preparing for meetings. And all this reading isn’t lightweight – email alone averaged a 10th grade reading level – pretty good, considering the number of emails that were just “Thanks!” or “Sounds Good”, both of which are really only a step from “See Spot Run”. And I can’t be anywhere near the worst – some of you must have it a lot worse.

At work, we deal with complex topics like student retention or math completion, with lots of complex statistics and intricacies that demand exacting language. In our classrooms, we’re responsible for educating students, and part of that is helping students learn to read and write at a college level. And the content we provide in our classes reflects that.

So far, so good. But the website isn’t work communication, and it usually isn’t a teaching venue. The website is a marketing and recruiting tool that sometimes does double-duty as a repository of knowledge for students, employees, and community members. That means content needs to be findable and readily digested.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be completely rewriting a page on the website. The owner of that page has graciously volunteered to let me tear it apart and write about it here. I chose this page for two reasons: first, it accurately represents the type of writing we see all over the Lane website, and second, it’s a manageable length. There’s a few pages that are thousands of words long that desperately need help, but for a blog post, we need something we can read in one sitting.


The primary tool we’ll be using to rewrite this page is HemingwayApp, an amazing website that will provide us with instant readability feedback. Though HemingwayApp won’t tell us how to write, it will tell us some of the places we’ve gone wrong.

We’ll also look at the ToneAnalyzer, a tool that tries to figure out the emotional tone of some body of text. Generally speaking, we want a tone that’s social (but maybe a different kind of social than you’re thinking).

Finally, the web team has been preparing to roll out some integrated tools in Drupal that will help you analyze the readability and the SEO friendliness of your content. We’ll see a preview of what those will look like after we’ve finished rewriting.

Do as I say, not as I do

One of our goals in rewriting the content will be end up at a 3rd to 6th grade reading level. That might feel surprisingly low, especially at an academic institution. So why so low? Two reasons. First, a large number of people both in our target audience and across the country can’t read at a college or even high school reading level. We have a responsibility to present our content at a level where the majority of our audience can understand it.

But also because people generally don’t want to work hard when we read. Everyone knows that sitting down and reading Joyce or Proust is a great personal development exercise. But for most of us, it isn’t fun (observe the layer of dust on that shelf in my living room). The fun books, the best sellers, the ones we enjoy reading and not just having read were often written at a surprisingly low reading level. We should strive to do the same on the web.

Of course, these blog posts may fall short of that ideal. And that’s ok – this blog is meant to be educational and technical. So while it’s still important I follow the basic rules – like avoiding passive voice, providing meaningful hierarchy, and meticulously avoiding excessive use of modifiers – I’m judging my audience to be capable of handing the added difficulty and writing for them.

Sometimes that’s ok on the Lane website, too. It’s probably alright that the Graham-Leech-Bliley Procedure is at a grade 20 reading level and is more than a thousand words long. That’s appropriate for the target audience for that page. And sometimes, we’re stuck with difficult language as well. I tried really hard to make our privacy statement accessible, but ultimately it’s a legal agreement, and language choices were limited (it’s grade 10). But we have to do as best we can.

Game Plan

Next post, we’ll review the content on our sample page and the context of the site where it lives.

All the posts in this series: