Have you ever read a paragraph and then had no idea what you just read? I hate when that happens, but even more so, I love when that doesn’t happen; it means the writer has done his or her job.
Maybe that’s just me, a writer myself and one of very few self-proclaimed grammar enthusiasts out in the wild. Yet you’d be surprised at how quickly any user is deterred from poorly written content – even those who couldn’t care less about grammar itself. (Regardless, note that it’s “couldn’t care less,” not “could care less.”)
Like It or Not, Users Are Judging You
Subconsciously, we make countless snap judgments and decisions throughout everything we do. That means when we first pull up a webpage and skim its content, there are many questions running through our heads: What does this company have to offer? Is the brand reputable? What can I do from this page? Where can I learn more about what I need?
And if readers are spending too much time searching for those answers, they grow at best confused and at worst angry, causing them to exit your site altogether and likely never return. Captivating, creative, and engaging content is a great place to start, but the dazzle will only go as far as the flow of your writing carries it – and improper grammar throughout can be a major distraction from your strategy. If you’re not directly answering the questions that visitors to your site have as they arise, then who are you writing for?
Grammar and Your Brand Reputation
Aside from helping out users, though, your brand’s professional reputation, trustworthiness, and credibility hinge on how you communicate the reasons you’re worth their time and money. Jeffrey Gitomer, an American author and business trainer, once said, “Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression. And like all impressions, you are in total control.” As we’ve all been taught, first impressions matter, and good grammar is the firm, virtual handshake you extend to potential customers.
It’s hard to measure – let alone realize – just how much proper sentence structure and grammar practices can take your clarity in communication to the next level. However, nowadays, users don’t have time to waste being uncertain of what your brand has to offer or how to take action. After all, there are many other options out there, and as daunting as it sounds, one typo or misplaced comma can further drive away a potential customer – or, in the most extreme cases, result in a lawsuit for conveying misinformation.
Let’s look at an example. Say you’re in the auto industry and have on your website the following:
“If your car begins to skid on an icy road, it’s better to pump then slam the brakes.”
Well, you might end up with some major complaints on your hands, considering you actually mean the opposite of what you wrote. (Instead of using the word “then” to denote the timing and order of doing two things, you’d want to use the word “than” to compare the two things.) This is just one way a seemingly harmless grammatical error could put a potentially huge dent in your reputability.
Content Is King
In the digital marketing world, “content is king” is a catchphrase you’ll often hear. That’s because content quality is the foundation of SEO success. And although there’s no precise way to track how grammatical correctness alone influences your results page rankings, we can say for certain that there’s a correlation. Google has said that its well-ranking websites generally lack errors in their content, but Bing has indeed confirmed that it factors grammar into its search results. For visual learners out there, The Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors illustrates the importance of various web elements as a gradient – with content quality carrying the most weight of all the on-page factors.
The reality is that most pages on your website are static and will remain relatively unchanged, so excellent grammar will continue to reap dividends.
A Quick Grammar Crash Course for Content Quality
There is a vast array of grammatical errors floating around online that I encounter on a daily basis. Below are a few of the most common themes that interfere with content clarity, which I will affectionately call the “4 P’s” for this purpose only.
Parallel structure, or parallelism, is the practice of following the same grammatical pattern of words throughout the entire sentence. For instance, a company might write the following statement:
“Our clothing line allows customers the benefits of comfort, versatility, and to stay active.”
Notice how “to stay active” throws off the flow and readability by inserting an unnecessary verb phrase, whereas the other two benefits are listed as nouns. It seems like a little thing, but even a little bit of turbulence in your sentence structure can confuse readers and cause them to disengage.
It is recommended that the active voice be used by communicators.
That sentence is fine (and true), but let me write it another way:
Grammar rules and stylebooks recommend that communicators use the active voice.
Not only does the first statement sound unnecessarily formal, but it’s also vague and choppy to read. Plus, it leaves us asking who recommends it. Passive voice constructions position the subject as being acted on by the verb when it should be the opposite. The second statement, written in active voice, properly assigns “rules and stylebooks” and “communicators” as subjects that perform actions.
Without clearly assigning responsibility to a subject, there is missing context and information. This leads people to question your reputability and accuracy. If you’ve ever been bothered when a politician addressed a blunder with, “Mistakes were made,” you know more about the passive voice than you might think! The vagueness of this apology doesn’t allow the mistake-maker to accept responsibility and instead passes it off to an unknown party. There is little sense of immediacy. Customers will much appreciate the transparency in a company that can simply admit, “We made the mistake.”
These are those words that replace exact nouns. You probably don’t want to keep repeating your company name every time you reference it, so you should replace it with “we” or “our.” It’s usually best to use the first or second person, as it simply sounds more personal. After all, people are much more likely to connect with something when they feel that they’re being spoken to directly.
Which of the following is easier on the eyes and ears?
“Example Establishment, Inc. strives to ensure that it provides top-quality service to its customers.”
“Our staff strives to ensure that we provide you top-quality service.”
The second sentence is much more conversational while communicating the same thing, showing how a simple swap of pronouns can completely alter not only the tone but also comprehensibility. Readers don’t have to wonder even for moment who you’re talking about or who you’re talking to; it’s all about what you can offer them.
Also note that, as in the first sentence, organizations should be referred to as “it” and not “they” because companies are are entities, not actual people.
To best exemplify proper punctuation usage, I will scatter this paragraph will correctly-used punctuation marks, including the following: commas, dashes, hyphens, colons, semicolons, and parentheses. As a rule of thumb – if you’re unsure of how to use any of them, keep it simple! Short, straightforward sentences can go a long way; however, if you’re wondering about that semicolon, the most important thing to remember is that whatever you write after it needs to be a complete sentence (or independent clause).
No matter if your content is lacking much-needed punctuation or sprinkled with unneeded punctuation, both will cause chaos in users’ minds as they try to digest your message. Not to mention, even a single misplaced comma can change a phrase’s entire meaning.
Content Marketing is a Conversation
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair that users judge a company by the writing and grammar skills displayed on its website, but the reality is that they will. All this being said, there’s nothing more crucial than for content marketers to be both conversational and comprehensible. You’re always better off making that a priority than trying to sound like Shakespeare (not to be confused with “then trying to sound like Shakespeare” – remember?).
It might not seem worth it to hire a content marketer to create and edit projects you could technically do in-house. But learning to write well is harder than it looks and, let’s face it, isn’t everyone’s forte. If you’re concerned that your business’s content strategy isn’t hitting the mark, Go Local has an experienced and well-rounded team of content experts who can help elevate your brand engagement. Reach out to us today, and we can help you tidy up your website’s grammar to make it the best it can be!