Ever since Noah Webster’s early nineteenth-century dictionary standardised key differences in US spelling from its British English source, there have been words from center and localize to color and labor that can jar to the reader who may know spellings of these words instead as centre and localise, colour and labour.
In simpler times, publishers would have spelling and grammar standards based on the country in which the content was to be published. So English readers’ eyes would not have been insulted by the loss of the odd vowel, while readers in the United States would have remained unperturbed by UK authors’ apparent inability to spell basic words.
With global companies that operate across multiple countries, and whose websites may be anything from under complete centralised head office control right across to total local independence, standards remain important in order to achieve consistency of tone and approach.
It remains important to have a comprehensive style guide, but standards might differ dependent on the reach and interests of the audience and target market.
Looking across the approach of various multi-national companies, who may have content creators in many different locations, there seems to be no agreed standard approach on the matter, with it coming down to choice and preference based on a few guidelines.
Many international sites have a core global site that then has different local layers at the top end as they have a different focus and different offerings in each country, showing a thin local UK layer over a core global set of content. But even as such, different variations of –ise and –ize appear without an overall apparent logic at work, and there tends to be no overall consistency on any of the sites.
How to determine if national spelling differences matterA couple of things to think about in order to rationalise the choice and make an objective argument for US or UK spellings:
- Where is your bigger audience or potential audience? You will see this from your Analytics package – if there is a clear UK dominance over US then there is a case for sticking with UK spelling – otherwise outside of UK (and the odd previous colony like Australia!) then US is the dominant variation in play on the internet. The US audience is also the most insular audience, and may be the ones to misunderstand spellings as mistakes rather than variations – though it would be easy to overplay this one. Also where do you want your biggest audience to be going forwards? If the US is the biggest potential market then US spelling may be the way to go for SEO benefits and comfort-factor for your audience.
- There is a higher dominance overall of US English over UK English online – 80/20 % split on spellings online, so you could argue this is a default and unrecognised standard in the making – especially as around 25% of ‘UK’ websites also use US spelling whereas only around 10% of US sites use UK spelling. Sadly to give an ‘international’ flavour and a global positioning to a company it may be necessary to move away from the very UK-focused spelling.
- Does using UK spelling give the company any more authority or kudos – the quality of UK-based knowledge or products – or does it reduce your kudos to an American audience? Some more consumer-focused companies may have an advantage in peddling their heritage goods with a dollop of UK spelling to enhance their positioning, whereas other B2B companies might sell in the high-quality of their consultancy knowledge of a specific market.
- If you really want to decide this objectively then you could A/B test a couple of pages on the website and see if search returns/hits increase on use of either spelling. You might see if people are searching on any terms that are different UK and US, and which ones are more dominant.
In a subject area that can press as many red buttons as the grocer’s apostrophe, and as is common with many of these fundamental content decisions it is about taking the subjectivity out of the equation to make the decision both more objective and more defensible.
Do you have experiences or opinions in this area? I would love to know how you make this type of decision – one that appears to be a minor part of your website but which can make a difference to the consistency and solidity of its appearance. Leave a message below, I would love to hear from you.