Common sense, instinct and my own wincing reaction to errors in spelling and punctuation – and to garbled expression – on a website tell me that they must damage online sales because they undermine potential customers’ confidence in the company. But I don’t know that this is universally true or even if there is a proven relationship between accurately written copy and the amount of business generated. And – not for want of trying – I haven’t been able to find a robust answer. This is the closest I’ve got…
Last July, the BBC published an article with the headline ‘Spelling mistakes “cost millions” in lost online sales’. This was based on a claim by Charles Duncombe, owner of several companies trading on the internet, that it is possible to quantify ‘the specific impact of a spelling mistake on sales’. He had demonstrated this by comparing sales from one of his websites, one selling tights, before and after he corrected a spelling error. Sales, he said, had doubled after the correction was made. The BBC’s headline was, I suppose, extrapolated from the figures (which the article also referred to) published by the Office for National Statistics in June 2011 showing that internet sales in the UK were valued at £527 million a week.
While I have no problem accepting that sales doubled, I do find it difficult to believe that this was solely attributable to the correction of a single spelling error, mainly because cause and effect in any aspect of life are rarely so directly and singularly related. Moreover, Mr Duncombe’s comments were made in the context of his concerns about errors in spelling and grammar in the applications for jobs he receives. As further evidence of his concerns, the BBC article quoted CBI head of education and skills James Fothergill who referred to recent research showing that 42 per cent of employers ‘are not satisfied with the basic reading and writing skills of school and college leavers and almost half have had to invest in remedial training to get their staff’s skills up to scratch’.
This is what puzzles me. If so many people have skills in spelling, punctuation and grammar that are inadequate for the jobs they are employed to do, and these same people presumably constitute a significant proportion of online customers, wouldn’t you expect errors in website copy to have minimal impact on customers’ choice of where to shop? In short, there must be many people who don’t notice the errors. Add to these the people unbothered by such errors and the role that the spelling correction alone had in doubling sales seems difficult to credit.
There are surely legitimate reasons for lacking trust in websites with inaccurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is partly because of their association with spam and phishing – in the same BBC article, director of the Oxford Internet Institute William Dutton described this as potentially ‘a killer issue’ on commercial websites. I think you could reasonably add that inattention to the detail of presenting content is akin to arriving at an interview in overly casual clothes or, perhaps more aptly, without having washed and pressed them. The state of the candidate’s clothes may or may not reflect the ability of the individual to do the job, but it gives the impression that he or she did not care enough to make an effort. And in linguistic terms, the effort to present copy accurately demonstrates an understanding that the company is communicating largely with an unknown audience who, initially at least and certainly with lesser known businesses, have nothing to go on in assessing whether to buy from this company other than the text and images on its website. If the company has not made the effort in relation to language why should the customer suppose it would make the effort in relation to its products and services?
Which brings me back to the dearth of evidence. Maybe it exists but I have not been able to find it. Search on the internet and you will find plenty of comments about the ingredients for an effective website but few that refer to the quality of the language or the accuracy of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. You will find articles and expressions of fury or indifference about the obliteration of Waterstones’ apostrophe (which, you’ll notice, has just sneaked back in, in a different place, when you weren’t looking). You will find personal opinions and expressions of feeling about the importance of good corporate communication. But, unless you know otherwise, there is nothing on whether it actually makes a difference to sales.