Google’s Content Reading Level: SEO Analysis of Top Colleges & Content Farms

As an SEO I’m sure I look at the world in a slightly different way than most people. I see most things in terms of optimization; whether that is optimizing time, value, or Google rankings. I also am a very visual person, which in some regards is counter productive to analyzing traditional data.

Lucky for me Edward Tufte pioneered what today is known as an infographic, making it easy for visually minded people like myself to grasp large sets of data in a visual format and also help websites visualize their data sets for others to comprehend.

Reading Level Analysis

I recently came across a Google tool that defines the reading level of the content set of any website (and decided to create some charts and visuals based on the data) on the web, and organizes the pages into 3 categories; Basic Reading Level, Intermediate Level, and Advanced Level.

Where Is The Google Reading Level Tool?

  1. First do a site search in Google (our example will be harvard.edu) so type in the search box site:harvard.edu.
  2. Then click on the “show search tools” link in the left hand navigation of Google (you might have to scroll down the page a bit depending on your screen resolution).
  3. reading-level

  4. This will open up the search tools option and give you the link to show “reading level” of the site you did the search for.
  5. reading level option

  6. Once you click on this you will see the image below (positioned above the search results) for the reading level of the pages on any site you do a “site:” for. I would make sure to check sites without the www to get all the content that lives on sub-domains of those sites as well.

    reading level result

  7. A user can also click on any of the reading levels to return a list of pages on the website that Google has defined as being at that reading level.

This Idea Of Reading Level Analysis Got Me Thinking

To get the chance to enroll in most colleges they require the applicant to have a certain ACT or SAT score or GPA. I thought, well if they require such levels of knowledge why not turn the mirror on some of the colleges work from their websites to see if they measure up.

So, what I did was find the top 10 colleges in the US (as outlined below) and analyzed the reading level of their sites (which included all areas of their website from the enrollment pages to the research studies published by some of their most intelligent professors and students) to determine if the people creating these sites and research on the sites live up to the high expectations the colleges require for their applicants.

The Top 10 Colleges

  1. Harvard University: Harvard University is a private institution in Cambridge, Mass., just outside of Boston. This Ivy League school is the oldest higher education institution in the country.
  2. Princeton University: The ivy-covered campus of Princeton University is located in the quiet town of Princeton, N.J.
  3. Yale University: Yale University, located in New Haven, Conn., offers a small college life with the resources of a major research institution.
  4. Columbia University: Columbia University has three undergraduate schools: Columbia College, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the School of General Studies.
  5. California Institute of Technology: The California Institute of Technology focuses on science and engineering education. The California Institute is actively involved in research projects with grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology located in Cambridge, Mass. may be best known for its math, science, and engineering education, this private research university also offers architecture, humanities, management, and social science programs.
  7. Stanford University: Stanford University is located in California’s Bay Area, about 30 miles from San Francisco. The private institution stresses a multidisciplinary combination of teaching, learning, and research, and students have many opportunities to get involved in research projects.
  8. University of Chicago: The University of Chicago, situated in Chicago’s Hyde Park community, offers a rich campus life in a big-city setting.
  9. University of Pennsylvania: Founded by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania is a private institution in Philadelphia, Pa.. Undergraduates can study in four academic departments: Arts and Sciences, Nursing, Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Wharton.
  10. Duke University: Located in Durham, N.C., Duke University is a private institution that has liberal arts and engineering programs for undergraduates. The Duke Blue Devils sports teams have a fierce rivalry with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Tar Heels.

Reading Level Analysis: The Top 10 College Websites Based On Reading Level

An interesting point is that Columbia University is the most expensive of the top 10 with a 2011-2012 tuition of $45,290, yet has the least amount of advanced reading level material on its website.

smartest college websites

  1. Harvard.edu 82% Advanced Reading Level Content
  2. Caltech.edu 78% Advanced Reading Level Content
  3. Stanford.edu 74% Advanced Reading Level Content
  4. Mit.edu 72% Advanced Reading Level Content
  5. Upenn.edu 56% Advanced Reading Level Content
  6. Princeton.edu 55% Advanced Reading Level Content
  7. Yale.edu 53% Advanced Reading Level Content
  8. Uchicago.edu 52% Advanced Reading Level Content
  9. Columbia.edu 50% Advanced Reading Level Content
  10. Duke.edu 49% Advanced Reading Level Content

Reading Level Analysis of Sites Labeled as Content Farms

I didn’t stop there, maybe because I was sitting at Argo Tea, slightly bored but mostly because I wanted to compare that data to another set of websites. So next I decided to take the same approach and analyzed the reading level of the top 10 content farms on the web. I chose the sites outlined below as my data set.

  1. Suite 101: The insight of 20000 writers, read by 35 million readers every month.
  2. Ehow: Learn how to do just about everything at eHow. Find expert advice along with How To videos and articles.
  3. All Experts: Allexperts.com is the oldest & largest free Q&A service on the Internet.
  4. Answers.com: Answers.com: Wiki Q&A combined with free online dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedias. Ask questions, get answers.
  5. ArticleBase: Your free articles directory. Find free online articles for your website, eZine or newsletters.
  6. Associated Content: Associated Content has information on every topic.
  7. Buzzle: Buzzle.com is a diverse research-based web portal, your complete source for news, articles, categorized information and resources.
  8. Examiner: Get the latest news and articles on topics that interest you.
  9. EzineArticles: EzineArticles.com allows expert authors in hundreds of niche fields to get massive levels of exposure in exchange for the submission of their quality original content.
  10. Helium: Citizen journalism outlet offering a platform for writers to write articles on topics about which they are knowledgeable.

How did the “Expert’s” Content on These Websites Measure Up?

In short, not very well. Ehow was the best of the worst when it came to producing content that fell into that advanced reading level range at 25%, followed by Buzzle at 23%. The examiner was the worst of the worst having less than 1% of its content at an advanced reading level. Yet these sites still claim they hold high value when it comes to providing in-depth and useful information to their users.

content farms reading level

College Websites vs Content Farms

Do we even have to do it? Yes, because its fun to create charts in Excel. If you compare the two types of content sets (the first being that of colleges and universities and the second being that of content farms), one can clearly see the value that the first holds and why the second holds little-to-no “expertise” or value.

high value content vs low value content

So What Does Reading Level Mean for SEO?

In my opinion reading level is a clear indicator of the level of knowledge the writer has about a subject, thus an indicator to Google if the writer is an “expert” about the topic they are writing about. One of the primary SEO pitfalls that content farms seem to align with, is the low reading level of their content. This is most likely due to the lack of expertise that most of their writers have about the topic they were writing about.

SEOmoz’s recent panda questionnaire directly addresses content value and the focus on experts when it comes to creating valuable, research-based content. Google has stated many times that it wants to rank and present content to its users that is valuable and is research based, and not thin, low quality content.

5 Comments

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  • Dan doromal

    Interesting post. What would be even more interesting is a correlation study between reading level and rank.

  • admin

    Thanks for the feedback Dan. Great suggestion about doing a correlation between reading level and rank of a website. If you want to take a stab at the correlation data that would be great, if not I would be happy to try to build a model to see if there is a correlation. Any thoughts?

  • Marcell

    By the way, i like your style…

    How would you translate this interesting seo research of yours to best practices for ecom/shop seo?

    I handle some ecom clients and my copywriters always tell me that simple language is key.

    Best wishes from Berlin.

  • Marcell

    Wouldn’t be easy to compile a valid keywordset to monitor serps. Both of these types of sites talk about a huge amount of subjects. I think your claim in this post is evident enough without the warrant of even more speculation.

    ty

  • jossu

    I thought at first that reading level means how easy the site content is to read and understand. Because complicated things can be told easily and less easily. For example you can use professional words or you can tell things just more simplier. Also I think that for SEO, the more basic level text you have the better it is for search engine ranks. For example one very strong site has 0% advanced level and 81% basic level, and it ranks super and beats all those sites which have more advanced level text. But this post put me think differently, for a while. Still I think that content which is easier to understand, is the one which search engines likes. Highly educated people tend to speak using difficult words, even there is simpler way to explain things. Search engines try to be usable and give the right information as most usable way, not the most advanced way.

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