Summary: Users pay attention to details in a site's writing style, and they'll notice if you use the wrong variant of the English language.
There are many differences between American and British English, including:
- Spelling: color vs. colour, behavior vs. behaviour, theater vs. theatre.
- Terminology: truck vs. lorry, cart vs. trolley, two weeks vs. a fortnight.
- Concepts: what is football anyway — American football, soccer, or (for the truly brave) Aussie rules?
- Slang: do you call this sport "footie"?
- Abbreviations: do readers know that PA=Pennsylvania? Not if they're outside the U.S.
So, which version of English should you use on your website? There's no simple answer, but usability studies do provide two firm insights:
- Language matters. Users notice when a website uses a different version of English than the one they're used to.
- Some users will simply assume that the site is littered with typos, poor spelling, and weird words, all of which reduce credibility a good chunk.
- Other users will recognize that the site is using a different variant of English. These users won't think the site is poorly produced; they'll simply assume it's foreign and doesn't apply to them.
- Be consistent. Pick one language variant and stick to it. Varying the style confuses everyone and signals poor attention to detail.
Aside from this, I can offer only one firm recommendation: If your site is based in a single, English-speaking country and you don't mind being viewed as a local site from that country, use its language variant. So, a U.S. site should use American English, whereas a U.K. site should use British English. Similarly, sites based in Australia or other Commonwealth countries that predominantly use British English should use their local variant.
Problems arise in two cases:
- When your site is based in an English-speaking country, but you want to be seen as an international site.
- The goal here is to go beyond borders, rather than to simply serve foreign customers. For example, a Las Vegas hotel site won't offend British tourists if it's written in American English. Nor will a site selling genuine Scottish tartans lose American customers because it uses British English. Indeed, when you represent local products, using the local language adds verisimilitude to your claims.
- Canadian sites that mainly target the U.S. should use American English, unless they want to emphasize the fact that they're foreign. (This can be a selling point, but most American users view it negatively.)
- Your local language isn't English, but you need an internationalized version of your site for foreign customers. (Ideally, you should produce a localized version for each country where you have customers, but this isn't usually feasible; typically, organizations have a single English-language site to serve users from many countries. See my earlier article for internationalization guidelines beyond language.)
With the latter issue, much depends on a site's context. For example, I came across the following case during my recent seminars in Europe: A Scandinavian university wants to attract foreign students and thus has an English-language version of its website. So, should it use American or British English? The answer depends on both the main target audience and the main competition. If prospective students hail primarily from Europe and the school's main competition is U.K. universities, the site should be written in British English. If the primary target is American and Asian students, the site should be written in American English. Similarly, if the main competition is American universities, the Scandinavian site should use American English. Why? Because prospective students will search the site using the same terms they've seen on other sites, and using the same language variant will enhance SEO (search engine optimization).
The guidelines are clearer for spoken English, as used in video voiceovers, podcasts, and the like:
- The Queen's English is posh and universally admired. Use "Received Pronunciation" like the BBC used to do, and people will understand you around the world. But don't speak upper-class English if you claim to under-sell Wal-Mart.
- Midwestern or Northeastern American accents are also easily understood by international users and carry less of an upper-crust connotation.
- U.K. regional dialects, such as Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Northern English are hard for foreigners to understand (and Cockney is impossible). So don't speak like the BBC does these days :-)
- Most other accents — such as Texan or Australian — carry strong regional connotations, which can be positive or negative, depending on your brand. Unless they are very strong, these accents are usually not as hard for foreigners to understand as the U.K. regional accents.
Language = Voice
Using American or British English definitely impacts your site's style. Thus, the decision ultimately comes down to identifying the content style that's most appropriate for you and your customers. The answer isn't easy, but the decision must be made; users will notice if your tone is off.