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Dot the i, cross the t

Wed 1 Apr 2009
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Words are the most important part of a website. Words convey a website’s crucial information to a site visitor. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but without actual words to accompany it, any intended meaning will be subjective and at worst incomprehensible.

Despite this, when a newly developed website approaches launch day, words are frequently the last element to be considered and are often overlooked entirely. Typically, all eyes are on the graphics and site functionality. If an image is missing, lopsided, or the wrong shade of turquoise, memos are exchanged. If MySQL errors are crashing the site’s login page, supervisory phone calls are made. If there’s a spelling mistake on the homepage... actually, it’s most likely no one has noticed.

The website launches and goes live to the world. The client and the developers shake hands. Job well done, the Beaujolais and chocolates are with the courier.

That spelling mistake is still there – it may even be the tip of an iceberg. There could be a litany of mistakes, from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it typos to hardcore strangulations of the English language, both lexical and grammatical. And no one has noticed. This is a common occurrence, both locally and internationally, and it doesn’t matter from where a website originates, be it a large corporate, or a team of two working out of a bedroom.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that web developers are great at what they do: creating and developing websites. They are design and code gurus. Knowing the correct form of the plural possessive and never to split an infinitive was probably small beer to them when they were in high school. The developer’s goal, rightly, is to make a cool-looking, smoothly-functioning website. Text content for a website, in normal circumstances, is provided by the client; the web developer merely cuts and pastes. The content is put together either by the client directly or by someone in their office.

The designated writer may be an expert in the field of, say, hydraulic earth-moving equipment, but may not be the world’s best wordsmith. At worst, the content may have been put together by the client’s 12-year-old son who’s jobbing for some extra cash to upgrade his RAM.

You might argue that if a site has gone to launch and if the web developer didn’t notice any textual errors, and neither did the client and everyone’s happy, then what’s the problem? Someone will notice – that’s the problem. Surprisingly, some of the visitors to the website (aka customers) will know how to spell.

The odd typo is marginally forgivable, but outright spelling mistakes look bad. Grammatical errors are not only unprofessional; they can cause confusion and, in some instances, alter the intended meaning. Put these all together and you have a mess: a hard-to-read website that looks amateurish. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of dollars were spent creating a site, if the first thing a visitor sees when loading the homepage is something like: “Wellcome to our home...”

Ideally, a professional copywriter will be engaged to write content. If the budget doesn’t extend to that, then someone with more than a passing acquaintance with the English language should proofread and edit the content that comes in from the client. This step should in fact be built into the development cycle, where all text is filtered by a set of qualified eyes – either in-house or outsourced. And if there is no budget for any of that, then at the very least, the developer should run the site through a spellchecker in between the cutting and pasting!

Stephen Ross is a web developer and language guru with the NetValue group of companies. In addition to nine years in the IT industry, he has a background in teaching, publishing and writing.

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