Spelling, Grammar, and SEO

A book titled English Grammar on a table

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I care deeply about spelling and grammar. I’ve tried to tone it down in casual situations, because criticizing spelling and grammar can be ableist and honestly causes you to miss the point of whatever the other person is saying. So in my quest to be a better person, I’ve made a huge effort to keep my grammar criticisms to myself.

But what about in my profession?

I’m a content creator and SEO specialist. So I was wondering, what impact does poor grammar have on my job?

So I did a little internet sleuthing, and found this study conducted by Website Planet.

Their results were interesting.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the SERP

So it’s important to note that the Website Planet study only tested ads, and not organic results. Their test showed that the ads with spelling and grammar errors performed up to 70% worse than the clean ad in terms of click-through rate (CTR). Interestingly, for searchers in the US, the spelling error performed worse than the grammar error.

Google doesn’t penalize poor spelling or grammar. Their focus on the user experience means that if the content performs well, it will rank better and/or cost less per ad. So this tells us there’s a user bias against poor spelling and grammar (Bing prioritizes error-free content, but this study was performed on Google, so that’s what we’re going to look at).

We know that copy quality matters. If it didn’t, nobody would pay me for my work. Grammar and spelling are a part of that quality, because on the internet, readability is a part of content quality. People who are on the internet aren’t going to waste time on content that’s difficult to read, and badly written copy erodes your credibility with the audience, causing you to appear less expert in your subject matter. It’s easier to return to the SERP (search engine results page) and find a more authoritative site than it is to crawl your way through badly written copy.

Poor grammar impedes readability. This is what grammar is; a system designed to make language consistent and readable. Some errors, like extra commas, slow the reader down directly by causing the reader to pause. Interestingly, readers pause briefly on a comma, longer on a semi-colon, and the longest on a period, so commas aren’t the only error that directly cause this pause. In addition, poor grammar causes readers to pause and reorient themselves so that they can understand the sentence.

So on the SERP, bad grammar serves as a signal to your readers to not click, which is the opposite of what you want them to do.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the Landing Page

The Website Planet study also tested a landing page associated with the ads; one version that was clean and one version containing errors. Their results showed that typos on the landing page increased bounce rate by an astounding 85% in comparison to the clean landing page. In addition, the typos reduced time on page by 8%.

There’s a lot of junk on the internet, and people are cautious, especially when buying things. They’re less likely to trust someone who’s selling something and uses poor grammar, because they see it as more likely to be a scam. People are careful about where they type in their credit card information, and well they should be! 

So, especially if you’re an e-commerce site, you want your content to look as credible as possible, which means that you need to make sure that your spelling and grammar is up to snuff.

What it Means

This is important because all of these performance factors impact both organic ranking and thus the cost of your Google ads. Google’s ranking system focuses on user experience when they rank, and the ranking factors are selected to reflect that. That means that while Google may not penalize poor grammar directly, metrics like CTR, time on page, and bounce rate function as signals of a poor user experience, which results in the page ranking lower. Ranking lower results in higher costs for your Google ads.

So not only is there a direct cost in terms of your advertising spend (you’re either spending more for the same impact, or the same amount for more impact), but there’s an indirect cost in terms of potential sales lost.

By the way, while the Website Planet focused on ads, many SEO and marketing agencies agree that spelling and grammar have a negative impact on organic rankings as well.

While there is value in ranking for common misspellings of relevant keywords, I suspect that the damage that having the misspellings in your copy does outweighs the benefits.

The point is, you have to have someone skilled at the written word write your copy and do your SEO work, or all that labor will be in vain. When we talk about the importance of quality content in SEO, spelling and grammar are an essential part of that quality.

Is This Ableist?

Yes, it absolutely is. Are there people with disabilities like dyslexia and others that might have something worthwhile on the internet? There sure are. One of the things we love about the internet is that it democratizes media, allowing anyone to publish what they want, sometimes for free. But the internet is only as democratized as the people that use it, and that means that the internet is shaped by all of our biases.

This is also a problem for people whose first language isn’t English (potentially racist), and people who haven’t had the same educational opportunities that I’ve had. I lived in pretty wealthy neighborhoods growing up, so that means I had access to good (mostly white, that’s not a coincidence) schools as a kid. I attended a private school overseas for part of high school, and went on to higher education, studying writing as my minor and going on to graduate school. So if I’m being honest, my pickiness about grammar and spelling is a demonstration of racial privilege, economic privilege, and literacy privilege.

This is aside from my experience with business writing (which follows the same grammatical rules as other kinds of writing, but really is its own discipline) and whether you think of grammar rules as being descriptive or prescriptive. Both of those topics, however, deserve their own blog posts.

In the meantime, I’m hoping I can focus all my grammar and spelling nitpickiness on my professional life, and leave it there where it belongs.


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