How Optimized is Too Optimized?

Optimus Prime

Guest blog by Kathleen Corcoran

Optimal Optimus Prime

Among other services, WordPress offers SEO (Search Engine Optimization) analysis and optimization. These are, essentially, writing guidelines to draw readers to a webpage and then to make that webpage easier to read.

When every website bristles with ads (or is itself an ad), the primary goal of any author must be to drive traffic to a website, whatever that traffic may be. Disseminating information, discussing ideas, arguing viewpoints, and every other method of communication becomes monetized. Some might argue that this is why so much of online content today looks the same.

Yoast SEO

When a reader types a question or phrase into the search bar of Google, Bing, Duckduckgo, or any other search engine, the algorithms of that search engine sort possible results based on how likely they are to provide the answer.


“Clickbait” is the phenomenon of ambiguously or misleadingly titling an article for the sole purpose of convincing readers to visit a webpage. Social media accounts have popped up just to point out the silliness of these titles, often with hilarious results.

Search Engine Optimization begins with the title of a webpage. Ideally, the title of a website should be six to ten words, with 10% uncommon words and at least one “power word.”

Emotionally triggering headlines drive more traffic to a website. The more strongly emotional a headline is, the more effectively it brings readers to a page.

Even within the headline, word percentages come into play. Analysts have sat down and worked out the figures for how many uncommon words, how many common words, how many positive and negative and neutral words are most likely to convince a web searcher to click on a link.

  • Titles By the Numbers
    • 6-10 words
    • First 3 words are most important
    • 10-15% emotional words
    • 20-30% common words
    • 10-15% uncommon words
    • At least one power word
    • Sentiment positive or negative, never neutral
    • Lists and how-to articles are the most effective


My Favorite Key Words!

The other method search engines use to determine how well a webpage fits a query is to look for keywords. In order to reach the most viewers, writers are encouraged to create and use particular key words and phrases throughout the text.

This is similar to an essay’s thesis or an operatic motif. Of course, there are numbers for optimization of keywords.


Optimus Primal

Humans process information differently when reading on a screen than when reading on a page. Scrolling text creates different memory maps than turning pages. Serif fonts register more easily in print; sans serif fonts register more easily on a screen.

Beyond the physical, readability optimization focuses on how easily a reader can absorb the information presented on a website. Online, readers tend to skim information and look for particular words or phrases rather than reading thoroughly.

The readability is calculated by the Kincaid-Flesch reading score, originally developed for military use. 

Text Formatting

Rudolph Flesch and Robert Kincaid developed a system for evaluating reading ease and relative grade level, summarized in the table here:

ScoreSchool level (US)Notes
100.00–90.005th gradeVery easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.
90.0–80.06th gradeEasy to read. Conversational English for consumers.
80.0–70.07th gradeFairly easy to read.
70.0–60.08th & 9th gradePlain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.
60.0–50.010th to 12th gradeFairly difficult to read.
50.0–30.0CollegeDifficult to read.
30.0–10.0College graduateVery difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.
10.0–0.0ProfessionalExtremely difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.

They based the scores on a formula derived from the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in each word.

Once again, everything is reduced to numerical value.  Breaking up blocks of text into smaller paragraphs or adding pictures makes it easier for a person reading a screen to glance through a text and pick out information. However, none of this information actually measures the quality of writing.

  • Text By the Numbers
    • Breaking text up with sub-headings, calculated per 300 words
    • Readability score, calculated by average number of words per sentence and syllables per word, recommended between 60-70
    • Paragraphs less than 150 words
    • Sentence length calculated as a percentage of sentences with more than 20 words
    • Text length between 300-900 words

Writing Style

Once a reader has ventured beyond the title and the keywords, they must confront the actual writing on the page. Again, SEO has all the answers! Some of this is common writing advice, such as varying sentence structure and avoiding passive voice. 

What’s the Point?

When everyone writes by the numbers, driven by selling, I have to wonder how much the actual writing quality and style suffer. News outlets and health information present information formulated to drive in visitors rather than to educate. Bloggers deliberately trigger emotional responses for the sake of increasing ad revenue. How much real skill and work goes into crafting articles, stories, arguments, or any other accumulation of words when everything can be decided by formula and reduced to the lowest common denominator (or at least to 13-15 year olds)?

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and rapidly developing curmudgeon.

Un-Optimized Optimus Prime

Just for the sake of playing with this page’s readability score, I present to you the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. This sentence has a Fleisch-Kincaide readability score of -515.1.

“But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.”

Marcel Proust, “In Search of Lost Time” (1922)

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