Why bad spelling spells bad news for business advertising

Foreign restaurants are an absolute goldmine for bad spelling. Most of us have enjoyed a giggle at the ‘innovative’ dishes that pop up on menus in exotic climes… like the ‘friend eggs and tose’ I had for breakfast in Thailand, for example. Delicious it was too.

Foreign restaurants are an absolute goldmine for bad spelling in their advertising. Most of us have enjoyed a giggle at the ‘innovative’ dishes that pop up on menus in exotic climes… like the ‘friend eggs and tose’ I had for breakfast in Thailand, for example. Delicious it was too.

In this context, typos are funny, endearing and completely forgivable; they don’t negatively affect your opinion of the restaurant or the quality of the service you expect to receive. But what about when you visit a new business online? If you’ve got no prior knowledge of the company, how do you feel if you open their website and it’s full of spelling mistakes and bad grammar? Bet you’d be more suspicious than I was tucking into my friend eggs…

Making every word count

In this merry old digital world of ours, the first contact we have with many companies is via their website. In our first few seconds surfing, we’ll make irreversible judgments about the products and services on offer, and importantly, the credibility of the retailer. Ensuring the copy is correct seems a very basic part of marketing a brand online but it’s surprising how many businesses fail to ensure it’s done properly, and consequently are blissfully unaware how many customers they’re turning off before they start browsing what’s on offer.

Talking to the BBC on the subject last summer, William Dutton, director of the Oxford Institute at Oxford University said that while people are tolerant of poor spelling and grammar on social sites, in a commercial context it can “raise concerns over trust and credibility”.  It’s a simple truth that when we’re unfamiliar with a website, we want to know that it’s secure and reliable before we enter our credit card details and kiss our hard-earned cash goodbye. Spelling mistakes do little for consumer confidence.  “In these instances,” Professor Dutton continues, “when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

A very public cokc-up

It’s not just the private sector that’s guilty of sloppy copy. The government was left red-faced recently when its Learning Zone website was found to be peppered with typos and grammatical errors. The site, part of the government’s back-to-work programme, is designed to provide the unemployed with basic literacy, numeracy and interview skills. It told candidates that they will enjoy ‘equal opportunies’, get off to ‘a god clean start’ and that their course uses ‘a variet or media and different resourses’. Dear oh dear.

MI6 was famously caught out too. Their website revealed some particularly embarrassing mistakes that made the national press and threatened to undermine the professional reputation of an agency synonymous with ‘intelligence’. Their home page disclosed how the Secret Intelligence Service works to counter the threat of ‘regional instablity’. Slick, hey? One of their recruitment ads for a security officer role listed ‘patrollling’ and ‘safely checks’ amongst their duties, while the bright young things applying for the MI6 graduate scheme were promised a ‘great carees after joinging the service’. Hmmm. Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence does it? The spooks may have intelligence in abundance, but they hadn’t quite got to grips with spellcheck.

Tightening things up

Frustratingly, there is little research available that estimates the cost of copy errors for online businesses. In a recent interview with the BBC, Charles Duncombe, CEO of JustSayPlease, explained how getting it wrong can negatively impact your bottom line – something he has experienced first-hand. When his online hosiery company, Tightsplease,  was underperforming,  he turned to web analytics in the hope of finding the answer. He didn’t need to. The problem was staring him in the face; a big fat typo on a prominent product page that said ‘Tihgts’ instead of ‘Tights’. Once the copy was amended, tightsplease.co.uk customer conversion rates jumped by 80%. Charles argues that if you take his company’s experience and multiply it across online businesses in the UK, the cost of copy errors could run into millions.


Charles also revealed some other interesting insights into the successful use of copy online, “We’ve found that we have to be very careful with any references to products which date them to a particular season. It’s particularly important in fashion. For example, copy that refers to a product being ‘Featured on the Autumn 2010 catwalk’ or ‘As Seen in Look Magazine 2008’ can be a big turn off. It goes to the heart of your site’s credibility.” A point that’s well worth taking into account for copywriters and clients alike.


If, as the economists are predicting, 2012 is going to be another challenging year, it’s imperative that businesses do all they can to attract and retain customers. Ensuring web copy is correct is worth more than fleeting consideration; not only is it important to communicate product benefits effectively to customers, it’s fundamental to brand perception. In short, if your writing skills aren’t up to scratch, it’s probably best to call in the professionals… or at least, consult a dictionary.