Are spelling mistakes bad for business?

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence on the web but – and I’ve checked this out – no academic research looking specifically and objectively at the relationship between linguistic accuracy on websites and consumer confidence. So, a few weeks ago I asked whether accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar on websites are good for business. This is how people responded to polls on SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn and Ecademy, and to the blog:

Do errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar undermine your confidence in a company’s website?

No, I wouldn’t notice 1

No. Errors like these don’t bother me. 2

Yes. But I’d still buy from the company. 22

Yes. I’d look somewhere else. 34

The results suggest that 9 out of 10 people lose confidence in a business when they find linguistic errors on its website, and that nearly 6 out of 10 would continue their search elsewhere. But, of course, this doesn’t tell the whole story – the numbers are relatively small, it’s not necessarily a representative sample and people are probably more likely to vote in a poll if something is important to them than if it isn’t. Interesting nevertheless, especially when you look at the reasons – most of them about why people think accuracy is important.

Accuracy doesn’t always make a difference

The only argument that, at least in some circumstances, accuracy doesn’t matter was that it depends on the service being offered. The examples given were plumbing and PR – if you were looking for a plumber it might not matter if the person offering the service could write accurately – it would be their plumbing skills you’d want to know about. If you were looking for PR services on the other hand, skills in language are likely to be significant. But, as someone else pointed out, good plumbing depends on good language skills, especially the ability to understand complex instructions and regulations.

The jury’s out

There were some comments where people were ambivalent. An intriguing one was that in the UK people are more tolerant of numerical errors than linguistic ones, that the British are likely to see mistakes in spelling and grammar as a ‘moral fault’. Someone else talked about intellectual snobbery and quoted American author Kurt Vonnegut’s warning against using semi-colons – these, he apparently said, did no more than demonstrate you’d been to college. Another said that sales may not be affected but the business’s image probably would be. And someone else drew a distinction between perceptions of well-known, trusted companies and unknown ones – tolerance for mistakes on company websites with an established good reputation would be greater. By implication, potential customers of a less well-known company would rely more on linguistic accuracy to know whether or not they could trust it.

Accuracy does matter

And then there were the comments – the majority – that were unequivocal about the importance of accuracy. In a vivid analogy, one person wrote of eating establishments: ‘…if someone cannot take the care to spell check…their content – will they take care to wash their hands when preparing my food…?’ This was the drift of most of the other comments, that the care that businesses take in presenting themselves on their websites is an indicator of their approach to providing goods and services. One put it this way – when you buy online, a complete stranger is asking for your money – you’d think twice about the service they’re offering if they can’t take the trouble to write well. This was summed up in another comment – that mistakes in language show carelessness and lack of judgement. And someone who had conducted commercial research into what made people trust one website rather than another found that typos and broken links were crucial. He explained this by saying that accuracy and functionality on the website are seen as a ‘surrogate’ for a good customer process and experience.

Thanks to everyone who voted and/or commented.