The importance of spelling and grammar to create a professional appearance

Many people will form an impression of your company based on your web site. If your organization is an online business, this is the only impression you can offer. Consequently, it is extremely important to create a positive impression by focusing on correct spelling, grammar, and capitalization.

A friend of mine was a QA lead at a large national bank a number of years back. They were rewriting their online banking system at the time, and he was heading up the quality assurance for the project. One thing that really stuck in my head back then was that they prioritized bug reports on grammatical problems higher than almost all other issues.

As a bank, it was especially important that they did not compromise their professional image. If banking clients saw a simple spelling mistake on their site, what would that imply about the security of their financial data? Is the site being run by amateurs?

I’ve learned through the test of time that end users really don’t care about how things work under the hood and how much effort went into making a system efficient, scalable, and secure. They care about what they see on the screen.

The bank did the right thing by setting a high priority on these bugs. They can spend millions of dollars on a spectacular web site, but what good is all that if a customer is turned off by an avoidable spelling mistake?

Just as this principle is important for a bank’s credibility, it is even more vital to a small ecommerce retailer. A small retailer won’t have the brand familiarity that large banks or corporations enjoy, and a potential customer’s only perception of the organization is by what he or she sees on the small retailer’s site. Further, if the product or service being sold is commoditized, it’s very easy for a customer to go to a competitor who is perceived to have higher quality and credibility. Remember, you’re asking your customers to enter their credit card information on your site. They must trust you before they’ll do that.

Spelling and grammar are not the only things to consider. Localization is also important, even if your web site is only offered in one language. Some languages, such as English, are spoken in many countries and spelling rules differ by country. Localization may be required if your site spans more than one country. The spelling rules for British and American English are quite clear, but things are a bit ambiguous in Canada. Due to American influence, many people use American spelling. However, government publications and newspapers generally follow a hybrid between British and American spelling. Colour is spelled with a ‘u’ as the Brits do, but the American “~ize” is used in place of “~ise” (e.g., “authorize” vs. “authorise”).

Since I’m Canadian, I’ll use Canada as a use case of English localization and to demonstrate its importance. Some people write “colour” and some write “color.” No one will notice if you use the word “colour” (with a ‘u’) in your copy. However, a subset of your audience will notice if you use “color” and it might give them the impression that your localized Canadian site is actually American. Something as small as this can give your customers the impression that your site is from a different country and potentially lose the trust you’ve built.

One exception to what I’ve discussed is user-submitted content, such as product reviews written by customers. It’s generally very clear that these reviews are not professionally written and expectations will be lower. Further, a few spelling mistakes here can be a good thing because search engines might direct traffic to your site for common misspellings of your product or service.

Some of the most common mistakes I see are its vs it’s (and its’ is not a word), their vs there vs they’re, your vs you’re, then vs than, and which vs that. Another common mistake is random capitalization of words in a sentence when those words do not form a proper noun. Unless it’s a title, there’s no need to capitalize.

The key is to be mindful of your audience and write appropriately.

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