US vs British/Australian English in Website Copywriting

October 17, 2008 •

Which do you use? US or British (Australian) English in your web copy?

Your website is globally accessible, so your readers could come from anywhere. It may seem a trivial consideration, but many readers really care. British readers, for instance, tend to have a strong preference for British English. US readers tend to prefer US English. (Australian readers prefer British English, but will usually tolerate both.)

What’s more, it’s not just a question of pleasing readers when they’re actually reading your copy. You may also have to consider the search engines. e.g. What do you do if half your target audience Googles “search engine optimisation” (with an “s) to find you, and the other half Googles “search engine optimization” (with a “z”)? Although Google is smart enough to know that “search engine optimization” is the same as “search engine optimisation”, if someone searches for “search engine optimization” (with a “z”), most of the results will be about “search engine optimization” with a “z”. And the opposite applies when someone searches for “search engine optimisation” (with an “s”).

So in reality, your primary concern should be the search engines. Whatever choice you make could significantly impact the traffic you actually attract, not just how that traffic reacts to your copy.

Fortunately, for most businesses, it’s not the quandry it might first appear to be. To answer the question, just think about your target audience. Unless your business is truly global, you’ll probably be most interested in customers from a particular country. That being the case, just use whatever version of English they use. If your target audience is American, use US English. If Australian or British, use British English.

It only becomes tricky if you’re juggling audiences. If you’re a multinational, there’s a very simple answer: create localised versions of your site (one for US, one for Australia, one for Britain, etc.). You’ll probably have non-language reasons for doing this anyway; things like currency, legal and product versions.

However, if you’re a small business, you have to make compromises. You can either figure out which of your audiences delivers the best revenue and write for them, or you can try to write for both audiences (i.e. sometimes use US English, and sometimes use British English). The problem with the latter approach is that many readers will notice the inconsistency, and thus pay more attention to your choice of language. The other problem is that you’ll be diluting your keyword density for both the US version of your keyword and the British version, so you may, in fact, harm your search engine ranking for both audiences. (But that’s a discussion for another day…)

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Eric Mayfield wrote on November 30th, 2009

So my question is what do you guys exactly think is the best middle ground? I'm in this exact quandary at the moment and would love to have localized versions. My biggest problem is that if one version is US optimized and one UK optimised ;0) I'll still suffer from Google due to all the other duplicate content. So really each version would need to be unique in at least content if not "look and feel". I feel this would be a great subject to be discussed more in-depth.

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comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on December 1st, 2009

Hi Eric. Sorry for my delay in responding. I had some issues with my blog's comments. You're right. If you have different domains for each localised version (i.e. yoursite.co.uk for the UK version and yoursite.com for the US version), you'd have all the duplicate content issues. You can, however, reduce the risk of duplicate content issues by specifying (in Google's Webmaster Tools) which domain is for which location. Then the most appropriate page should usually be returned. Probably the bigger problem is that you end up splitting incoming links between each of your domains, thereby diluting domain popularity of each individual site. There are two ways around this: 1) Use a sub-domain (i.e. uk.yoursite.com) and you reduce that dilution of domain popularity somewhat. 2) You could use a sub-folder (i.e. yoursite.com/uk/) and you eliminate dilution altogether (all inbound links contribute to your domain popularity). Unfortunately, however, these approaches aren't that intuitive for users. Also, with both of these options, you can't host each localised version in the appropriate country, which can be important. More on all of that here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hSoXutuj0g&feature=player_embedded#t=700 and here: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/seo-guide-international-versions-of-websites. Cheers.

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