The importance of spelling and grammar to create a professional appearance

Written on June 18, 2011 |

Many people will form an impression of your company based on your website, and if your organization is an online business, this is the only impression you can make. It’s extremely important to create a positive perception by ensuring spelling, grammar, and capitalization are correct.

A friend of mine was a QA lead at a large national bank a number of years back and was heading up the quality assurance for a large rewrite of their online banking system. 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 this being run by amateurs?

Anyone who’s spent enough time managing or developing computer systems has learned that end users don’t care about how things work under the hood and how much effort went into making a system efficient, scalable, or secure. They care about what they see on the screen.

The bank was right to set a high priority on these bugs. They can spend millions of dollars on a spectacular website, but what good is all that if a customer is turned off by avoidable mistakes?

Just as this principle is important for a bank’s credibility, it is even more vital to a small ecommerce retailer. A small retailer doesn’t have the brand familiarity of large banks or corporations, and a potential customer’s perception of the organization is based on what they see 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 with a higher perceived quality or credibility. Remember, you’re asking your customers to trust you when they enter their credit card information on your site.

These aren’t the only things to consider. Localization is also important, even if your website is only offered in one language. Take English: it’s spoken in many countries, but words are spelled (“spelt” if you’re British) differently by country. Sometimes particles differ (e.g., I “pay at the door” in America but “pay on the door” in England). Localization may be required if your site spans more than one country. Differences between American and British English are usually clear, but things are a bit ambiguous in Canada. Many have adopted American spelling due to its influence, but 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 preferred over the British ‘~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 portion 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 foreign 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 low. 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.

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