Typographical errors can make you laugh. Indeed, I’m hoping that “ewe must putt this write” will cause a chuckle or two. Unintended typos can also make you feel foolish, but can they have a negative impact on your website conversion rate?
I ponder that question in this blog post, which is an expanded version of a column I wrote a few weeks ago for SearchEngineWatch. Of course, typos are a fact of life, just ask billionaire Warren Buffett, who was widely quoted by the media this week as Warren Buffet. And society’s tolerance for typos does seem to vary according to context. Typos in SMS are generally okay, partly due to the physical challenges of mobile phone keyboards, but also the (hopefully) private nature of the conversation. Typos also seem to be acceptable in the more public context of Twitter, as long as they don’t lead to misunderstandings.
(Speaking of misunderstandings my original column intentionally began “Lick it or not, spelling errors on commercial websites…” but some readers objected to that, saying it was a cheap shot, which is where I got the idea for the sheep shot.)
So here goes: Lick it or not, spelling errors on commercial websites are a turnoff for many people. A recent BBC News article highlighted bad spelling as a potential cause of lost online revenue. In other words, typos could hurt your conversion rate and “cost you deep in the purse” or “deop in the pursa” as it might have been written 500 years ago.
That ancient phrase dates back to a time when very few people could read and write, and there was very little writing for most people to read. The idea that we should have a standard way of spelling only gained traction after printing technology drastically increased the number of words being put on paper (and even then, it took several centuries for the plural of egg to settle down as eggs, rather than egges or eggyes).
Some people still aren’t sure that standardized spelling is a good idea, a view reflected among the more than 600 comments sparked by that BBC News article in just 24 hours. However, many of those comments missed the point of the article: Bad spelling can undermine website conversion rates.
As one randomly selected web shopper put it to me: “If an online store is too stupid to get their spelling right, why should I think they will get my order right?” The fact is, commercial websites rely on text—written copy—to conduct business, from describing the product to explaining the purchase process. Even sites full of fancy graphics have to use words and when it comes to conversion rate optimization your personal feelings about spelling are irrelevant. The relevant opinions, the ones that rule in CRO, are those of your website’s visitors.
Why would a typo cause visitors to your website not to convert, even when those people may themselves be terrible spellers? Without performing a formal survey of website visitors, any answer to that question must be based on supposition, but here are some suggestions:
- Accurate spelling and good grammar are equated with legitimacy, if not consciously then subconsciously. Some of us may be more aware of this sentiment when it is expressed in the negative: Bad spelling and bad grammar are cause for suspicion. For example, what’s the first clue that a piece of email from a stranger is a scam? Many people would say it’s the bad spelling and grammar.
- Virtual transactions lack familiar clues about integrity, sincerity, and trustworthiness such as facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. We may be looking to website copy for clues instead. Good spelling and grammar signify respect for the website visitor because the site owner has made the effort to copy edit the content. Obvious failure to do so may undermine consumer trust, a valuable commodity when competing for online dollars.
- Size and location matter. If you are a big brand name like Target or Walmart you might not lose too many sales due to a typo in the details of a product description. But a glaring typo on the home page of a smaller brand may cause new visitors to bounce if that is their first impression of the site.
Tips Two A Void Spell In Miss Steaks
Typos may be acceptable in some places, like tweets and Facebook comments, but commercial website copy needs to be clean and accurate. Here are some tips on achieving that.
- Don’t rely on spell checkers. The above heading passes a spell check with flying colors. Yes, spell checkers can be a big help, especially those that flag errors as you are typing, but they just don’t have the human intelligence required to know which words you should be using.
- Use multiple human editors. I don’t know any serious writers who believe they can reliably copy edit their own work. As a writer you tend to see what you think you wrote, not what characters ended up on the page. In a pinch, “multiple human editors” can mean the person writing the copy and one other person, but three sets of eyes are better than two.
- Make sure your graphics people use the spellchecker in Photoshop for any images that include words. They need to use it before rasterizing the text layer. Editing typos in flattened image files is a real pain so check before you save to JPEG, GIF, or PNG.
As for those who disagree about the importance of typos on websites, I would love to hear from anyone who has run an A/B test of clean copy versus copy with typos (if you are of the opinion that typos would not hurt conversion on your website. then it’s reasonable to assume you would be willing to test it).
BTW, just to be clear, what I’ve been talking about here are errors in text copy, not the infamous special category of error: erroneous prices. The many different ways to handle those are ample fodder for another blog post.