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International Business: Million-dollar typos cause worldwide losses

Charles Duncombe, an Internet entrepreneur based in the United Kingdom, recently told BBC News that websites could be losing millions in online sales because of poor spelling and grammar. Internet users wary of scams are reluctant to make purchases on websites riddled with errors.

“(Duncombe) measured the revenue per visitor to the website and found that the revenue was twice as high after an error was corrected,” reported BBC News in July 2011.

"If you project this across the whole of Internet retail, then millions of pounds' worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes," says Duncombe, director of the Just Say Please group.

These costly typos affect not only online sales, but also more sizable transactions. The placement of a single comma in a contract between Canadian telephone company Bell Aliant and Rogers Communications allowed Bell Aliant to terminate the agreement early. The termination meant the loss of $2 million for Rogers Communications. Despite Rogers Communications’ arguments about the intent of the contract, Canada’s telecommunications regulator cited rules of punctuation when ruling in Bell Aliant’s favor in 2006. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which company you favor, the decision was overturned the following year on the grounds that the French version of the contract did not contain the same alleged error.

Typos also cost a great deal of money when they involve numbers. A missing comma and zeros in a lender’s lien changed $93 million to $93,000, causing U.S. insurance company Prudential to lose the difference in 1978. A misprinted date caused New York real estate developers to lose tens of millions in revenue. A misprinted phone number in an L.L. Bean catalog caused the retailer to pay a six-figure sum to purchase the erroneous phone number — the exact amount was not disclosed — in an effort to avoid losing customers. Even the rocket scientists at NASA were once forced to abort a multi-million-dollar mission because of a missing hyphen in a mathematical computation.

Like anyone else, I am human, and typos occasionally slip from my own fingers and from the keyboards of those near me. My wife still cringes when recalling that, 10 years ago, all our wedding announcements were printed, artfully tied with ribbon and stuffed in envelopes before we realized they listed the wrong address for the evening reception. Five hundred invitations had to be reprinted and tied to avoid sending guests to a nonexistent address.

Typosquatters” take advantage of Internet users’ occasional misspellings of domain names and search engine queries by creating websites based on common misspellings of popular brands, like instead of A U.S.-based consulting group called FairWinds Partners published a 2010 report analyzing typosquatting surrounding the 250 most highly trafficked websites.

The study concluded, “Typosquatting costs the brand owners associated with those sites $364 million and 448 million impressions per year in aggregate due to unnecessary advertising costs, lost sales and poor user experiences.”

Two Harvard researchers noted that advertisers could still win when associated with typosquatters. The pair, Tyler Moore and Benjamin Edelman, told that Google might make as much as $500 million each year in advertising revenue unintentionally associated with typosquatters.

In calling everyone’s attention to the ongoing battle against typos, I do not mean to inspire vigilantism. Some people can get a little too carried away, like the pair of typo correctors who, in 2008, traveled to all 50 states in the country “armed with Sharpies, erasers and righteous indignation” to correct dozens of public signs. The vigilantes ran into legal trouble when they unwisely defaced a hand-painted sign at the Grand Canyon that turned out to be a priceless historic artifact.

Without being overzealous, we can all be a little more careful in crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s. Common sense tells us every important document or Web page should be reviewed by at least one extra pair of eyes. When the stakes are high, that extra review could be worth millions.

Note: This column is not always perfect. If you feel teh need to reprot any tpyos in my colunm, please emial a note to Thnak oyu.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..