Any successful marketing campaign involves extensive knowledge of your target market and demographic. In the world of SEO, however, we're somewhat limited by what our analytics can provide. We can easily ascertain location, language and even interests based on keyword activity, but anything deeper is difficult to come by.
Before we take a look at the simple tool that's been right under our noses and vastly underutilized, let's examine why it is important to understand why it may be important to get into the brain of the searcher. Aside from keyword intent and search query type (informational, navigational, transactional), we can also get a glimpse into the level of content complexity searchers are expecting and possibly seeking. Knowing whether searchers are seeking basic, intermediate or advanced content on a certain subject can help content managers and copywriters write pages and posts accordingly, better catering to visitors and possibly even improving rankings.
Naturally, this complexity depends more on the search query rather than the searcher, as we don't always seek out the most advanced content or wish to be shown information in its most basic form. Now, if only there were some sort of search tool to help us determine what kind of content---basic, intermediate or advanced---ranks most commonly for our primary keywords...
Well, such a tool has existed since 2010. It's amazing how few people know about the Reading Level search tool in Google; or how few marketers utilize it. Finding it is simple, simply search anything in Google, click the Search tools button at the top of the results, then select Reading level from the All results drop-down. Or, you can find the settings by clicking on Advanced Search and choosing your desired reading level from the reading level drop-down in the "Then narrow your results by" section.
To use this tool, turn it on and search the list of keywords you are targeting on your site. At the top of organic search results, Google provides a percentage breakdown of the different levels of complexity, and how many of the ranking pages fall into each category. From this data, you can determine not only what kind of content is being sought by searchers, but possibly what kind of content is favored by search engines for a particular query.
Let's start with a query from within our own realm with a search for "search engine optimization." The pages that rank for this term are broken down as follows:
Looks like the pages featuring intermediate and advanced content take the cake in this case. In other words, a half-assed, top-level page on SEO that was fired off in 15 minutes probably won't rank worth squat (I know, I was shocked too).
But what about product searches? Not surprisingly, it depends largely on the type of product and the level of specificity in your search query. For example, a search for "best camera" returns the following breakdown:
While a more specific product search, and one that implies the searcher knows their stuff a little better, returns the following result:
A page that ranks for this query can be reasonably expected to contain some amount of technical information and more suitable to someone who knows a think or two about DSLR cameras, whereas the more broad keywords should be targeted on pages containing more top-level, easy-to-read information.
Put Yourself To The Test
The fun thing about this search tool is that is works with all of Google's advanced search operators. I'm sure you haven't been graded on your writing in quite some time (and I'm sure you miss it), so go ahead and put yourself to the test by turning on the Reading Level tool and searching "site:mysite.com" in Google. I'll start.
Keep in mind that your proportions of basic, intermediate and advanced content should be relative to your primary subject matter. For example, if your site sells advanced pharmaceutical software to large corporations, you probably don't want the vast majority of your site to be composed of basic content. Similarly, if you run a sunglasses ecommerce site, you probably want very little advanced content, and ideally not too much intermediate content, for that matter.
In the case of this site, the content breakdown Google provided is right in line with what I'd expect and hope for; with the majority of readers being somewhat tech-savvy marketers and several others with only a basic understanding of web technology, but looking to learn more.
To take your analysis a step further, you can compare the ranking breakdown for a single keyword to the individual page on your site on which you are targeting that keyword (hint: use the inurl: search operator for a single page).
Put Your Competitors To The Test
Now that you know what kind of content searchers expect for your primary keywords, and how your site and individual pages are perceived, you can also check out your competitors to see how they compare.
For example, another blog that writes on similar topics as us is from the folks over at Moz:
I can see from this that they have a little more basic content and at least offer their readers some advanced content. I could also analyze high priority pages to see how in-depth they've gone on certain pages that seem to rank well.
Putting It To Use
This quick and easy tool should be part of the regular arsenal of any content marketer or copywriter. When developing a content strategy, there are plenty of tricks of the trade on speaking the language of the customer, breaking your content apart and appealing to them in the right stage of the buying cycle, but you should also consider the depth in which they wish to go and the complexity they may be expecting when they click on your link. Catering to their expectations decreases bounces back to search results which can effectively improve your ranking while lowering that of a competitor who over-delivered or under-delivered on content.
In the end, despite the somewhat misleading "Reading level" label, it doesn't really come down to intelligence, but rather the amount of thought people feel like putting into a certain subject. Someone searching for a new hat probably doesn't want to read about the chemical dying process---they just want basic information on styles, colors and price---while an early adopter looking for a new high-tech widget probably wants to read through the technical specs in all their glory.
As marketers, it is our job to understand how our customers think of our products and services. By understanding their thoughts and feelings on particular subjects, we are better positioned to write content that connects and converts.