When Websites Go Wrong: 5 Common Web Writing Mistakes

The foundation of any great website is its words: whether you’re trying to sell something, entertain, answer a question, or solve a problem for your audience, you’ll do it with words.

Sadly, many websites are lacking finesse in the words arena, which costs their owners potential new customers and can even result in negative press (site shaming does exist!).

In my experience, these are the five most common web writing mistakes that will cost you potential customers, followers, clients, and brand advocates. You name it, they’re going to click off of your site the second they see these easy-to-avoid errors.

1. Spelling errors and typos

vintage-trade-card

Vintage advertisement for Dr. Jayne’s expectorant, Miami U. digital collection

A couple of small typos on a Web page are forgivable (and can happen to anyone, including myself), but if the mistakes move into the realm of deep-rooted spelling problems—such as confusing “they’re,” “their,” and “there”—the level of your reader’s trust will drop exponentially…as will the chance that they will ever visit your site in the future, much less buy from you.

2. Poor grammar

cyanide and happiness1

A recent study by Global Lingo found that 59 percent of potential customers would not do business with a company that had obvious grammatical mistakes on its website or marketing materials. That means that six out of ten people who visit your website will high-tail it out of there—forgoing a possible purchase—because you wrote “the affects of society” or “I run good.”

3. Abusing the right to capitalize

Students' message board ©1973, LSE Library digital collection

Students’ message board ©1973, LSE Library digital collection

The basic rule is simple: don’t capitalize a word just because you like it, think it should be emphasized, or just think it looks better that way. Some more tips:

  • Don’t do This in running Text—it Looks ridiculous.
  • NeVeR dO thIs.
  • And finally, WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS EXTREMELY ANNOYING (IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE YELLING).

4. Spacing and formatting issues

Vintage advertisement for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, from Miami U. digital collection.

Vintage advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Miami U. digital collection

One problem that I often see in website copy is too many spaces between words, especially before new sentences. So I say to you: forget the two spaces before each new sentence “rule.” This is a holdover from the typewriter era—it no longer applies! Other common problems include:

  • No spaces between words (the equivalent of a formatting typo).
  • Too much of a gap (formally known as a paragraph break) between sections or paragraphs.
  • Underlined text. (Underlining on the Web is a way to denote a link—that’s it. Use italics for emphasis.)
  • Using crazy, hard-to-read fonts, or a text color that clashes with your website’s background color.

5. Neglecting your audience

Photo of family reading, Australian National Maritime Museum collection

Photo of family reading, Australian National Maritime Museum collection

I hate to break it to you, but people visiting your website aren’t all that interested in your business. They’re interested in how your business can help them solve a problem, be entertained, buy something, or answer a question. Make sure that your website’s copy and navigation is focused on satisfying your visitors’ needs. Do they usually want to learn more about your services? Make that information easy to find. Are they going straight to your blog? Give them plenty of navigation options, and ultimately draw them back to your sales pages.

Interested in learning more about what your audience wants from your site? Send them a quick survey with a prize (a coupon for 10% off the next time they buy from you, etc.) and ask them!

My final tip? If you’re ever in doubt about your website copy, hire an editor to look it over. Or better yet, hire a professional copywriter to make sure that your content is solid from the get-go! Inkbot Editing offers both of these services.

This post is part of the Word Carnival series of monthly blog posts. Click here to read more posts on this month’s topic, “100 Best Ways to Screw up Your Business Website,” written by other whip-smart entrepreneurs, marketing mavens, and small business owners!

12 responses to “When Websites Go Wrong: 5 Common Web Writing Mistakes

  1. Hi Molly, great reminder to us all of the importance of readable writing.

    Caps is a beauty. The moment you read an IMPORTANT Sentence littered with CAPS, your Brain stops understanding it’s INTENT.

    It’s amusing to read a sentence full of caps. You can hear your inner voice emphasising the capped word as in a sing song, which somewhat detracts from any seriousness intended!

    We used to design annual reports. They sported more capped words then a spotty teen, which meant you were singing jingle bells by the time you’d read a page. Hardly the intent.

  2. The grammar allergy is hilarious! The sad part is when the client doesn’t see the error. The caps one is my personal nails on chalk board. I feel like I should cover my ears and give the author a time out. “Sit in that chair until you can speak in a normal tone of voice.”

    There is one I’m not sure I’ll ever drop – the two spaces after a period. I’m 40, I learned how to type on a typewriter (not even a word processor, a typewriter!) and that was drilled into my head and hands. I hope my potential clients can accept my foible :)

    • I know what you mean—I hate it when I read through a published blog post and notice that one tiny typo that I just couldn’t see before. This is why I’m such a huge advocate for having someone else read through your copy before you post it: even editors need editors sometimes!

  3. Don’t you feel like a broken record with this stuff sometimes? I often write about writing and think to myself… didn’t I SAY this already? I also wonder sometimes how people get out of school with such dismal writing skills. I’m not saying everyone needs to be a novelist but basics like your and you’re. Ugh!

    Nowadays with so much writing being web-centric, I also find that you need to be strategic about how you break rules. So even if you graduated English class with an A, you still may not do so well unless you can “informalize” your writing a bit. That doesn’t change the basics but it does confuse matters :)

    • Great point! I definitely think it’s fine to stretch the rules a bit to make your writing stand out, especially online: otherwise it can seem stuffy and overly formal, which is usually a turn-off for American readers. (I have noticed that readers from other cultures sometimes find the American, off-the-cuff writing style a bit *too* informal, which is also interesting.)

      The key is to know your audience, and to make sure that your writing will make sense to them!

  4. I really despise all caps!! That behavior not only drives me nuts on blogs and websites but in emails, as well. My eyes refuse to focus on all caps so the text immediately looks like one big blurry mess to me. Yuck.
    It takes so little effort to check your work. And it’s always wise to get someone else’s eyes on your writing before you share it with the world. I must admit, though … I do all my own proofreading (it’s kinda one of my fields of expertise). LOL! However, I check, double check, triple check, let my masterpiece marinate overnight, and check again in the morning. So far, so good. :)
    Love your “Poor Grammar” cartoon!!

    • Melanie—me too. Even some of the brands whose email campaigns I subscribe to are guilty of using all caps in their marketing copy every now and then. Sometimes, even though I like their underlying message, the all-caps thing leads me to tune out and delete their email pretty much instantly. It’s a missed opportunity for them, simply because they decided to use the caps lock button on their keyboard.

  5. I call these oopsies “friction” because they slow the reader down and keep her from absorbing your message. Another thing that causes friction for me is overuse of emoticons. Those can be great in a text message, but not in your blog posts or your marketing copy. As for tics, I’m guilty of being overly fond of the em dash — it just works.

    • Tea—I’m also a huge fan of em dashes, and I probably tend to overuse them. But as long as they don’t distract from what you’re trying to say, I don’t think they fall into the “writing tic” category. (At least I’m trying to convince myself of that because I’m not going to stop using them!)

      And part of me can’t even believe that people are using emoticons in blog posts or actual copy…but after what I’ve seen online, I can (sadly) see how it could be true. It’s a sad day for Web humanity when that pointer needs to be spelled out…

  6. Nick—exactly! I always try to get a second pair of eyes on my blog posts before I hit “publish,” and I think everyone benefits from that.

    And I love your additions! I am 100% with you on the jargon/made-up words point: too many websites use it to a fault (I even catch it on sites like MarketingProfs and Lifehacker, which have huge audiences…) just to make their copy “stand out.” I’m not a fan. I think that any idea should be able to be expressed as simply as possible, unless you have an extremely specific, dialed-in audience (and even then, I’m usually not a fan). It’s normally just white noise, as are the writing ticks you describe.

  7. It doesn’t even have to be an editor! For God’s sake, just get someone to read over what you wrote. Most people are so horrendous at auditing their own writing there’s just no point in “run-and-gun” style publishing.

    Although in my experience many of my clients are pretty good writers already, so it can also be an ego thing. I’ve seen unintelligible drivel come out of some of the smartest people I know.

    I’d like to suggest one more addition to your list: jargon or made-up words happen a lot on websites because they sound cute. Also: writing ticks (although that kind of falls under grammar, I suppose). Sort of like verbal ticks: um, er, ah… etc. Writing ticks are like ellipsis-overuse … “etc” overuse, and over-hyphenation – just to prove a point.

    Changes in typography, colors, font size, line spacing, character spacing, whatever… it can all be done with CSS and creates headaches for readers. Even something as simple as bold or italics can throw an “inner monolog” for a loop. Yuck.

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