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University and college websites are struggling to learn the lessons of writing in plain language


In its largest ever study, VisibleThread identifies that 99% of university and college websites do not meet target readability standards

Cambridge UK, Thursday 10th November 2016. VisibleThread, a global leader in content quality management, has released the results of its largest ever clear language study. This comprised 415 University and College websites in 6 countries.

There is a growing global movement for all website content to be clear, concise and relevant. For example, in the UK, the government’s Digital Service, issued its mandatory content design: planning, writing and managing content guidelines. In the USA, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) supports the use of clear communication in government writing. In Australia, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel has similar goals as does the Government of Canada.

VisibleThread analysed up to 100 pages on each of the 415 websites for these metrics:

  • Readability - How readable is the content?
  • Passive Language - Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?
  • Long Sentences - What proportion of all sentences are too long?
  • Word Complexity Density - How many complex, hard-to-understand words does the content contain?

The key findings are:

  • Over 99% of University and College websites failed to achieve the target readability score of 60.
  • Only 23 out of the 415 Universities and Colleges analysed (5.5%) met the target passive language score of 4%
  • Long sentences abound on University and College websites. On some websites over 40% of the sentences contained more than 25 words. None of the websites analysed met the target score of 5%.
  • The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. More encouragingly, 63 out of the 415 University and College websites (15.2%) actually met or exceeded the target score.

Teacher’s Pets and Bottom of the class
The southern hemisphere outperformed the northern hemisphere in this study. Kaplan Business School (Australia) topped the 2016 Educational rankings in this study. It ranked highly in terms of complexity and passive voice. It scored moderately well in Readability, although it was let down by overuse of long sentences.

The National Tertiary Education performed extremely well for its avoidance of complex language. However, it was let down by its use of the passive voice and the number of long sentences.

Unfortunately, the University of Aberdeen (UK) website fell well below VisibleThread’s target scores in all categories. Amazingly, 39% of all sentences contained more than 25 words. It was also near the bottom for the use of complex language. Its readability score was also in the bottom third. These factors combined led to a poor overall clear writing score.

Similarly, the University of South Australia (Australia) fared poorly in its use of complex sentences. Its use of long sentences and active voice was marginally better. This kept it off the very bottom.

The top 5 Universities and Colleges were:
1. Kaplan Business School (Australia)
2. National Tertiary Education (New Zealand)
3. University of Tennessee Knoxville (USA)
4. Box Hill Institute (Australia)
5. Avondale College (Australia)

The bottom 5 Universities and Colleges were:
412. Northumbria University (United Kingdom)
413. Lancaster University (United Kingdom)
414. Lincoln University (United Kingdom)
415. University of South Australia (Australia)
416. University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom)

“This analysis clearly shows that Universities and Colleges have a lot of work to do to deliver clear and understandable web content,” said Fergal McGovern, CEO of Visible Thread. “With the exception of a few outliers, most University and College websites continue to confuse visitors. This means poor engagement levels for site visitors; potential and existing students alike.”

If students can easily understand messages and complete tasks online, the cost savings are considerable. Students and general website visitors can self-serve more easily, avoiding costly telephone calls or face-to-face visits. There is a counter intuitive aspect to this. The fact that such a tiny percentage of University and College websites have implemented clear writing practices is disappointing. But it’s also a great opportunity.

VisibleThread’s analysis shows that in many cases, simple, low cost process tweaks in one or two areas can deliver massive improvement in overall readability. And this leads to better visitor conversions and retention.

You can find the full report here:

Giovanni Maieli

About VisibleThread
VisibleThread helps executives in large organisations govern content quality with less cost and risk. Communications, marketing and sales teams in diverse industries use our technology to improve many functions, including proposal development, contract review, and brand audits. Our software finds brand compliance, poor readability, and other issues in websites and documents. Unlike consumer-grade analysis tools, VisibleThread processes hundreds of documents and web pages in minutes. Fuelled with greater insights, customers reduce costs and automate manual processes across their organizations. For more information, visit