With data privacy a regular topic in the news these days, it’s a wonder that companies don’t do more to ensure that their policies are easy to understand. After all, given the amount of scrutiny of late thanks to high-profile security breaches like those at Target, Ashley Madison, and Sony, wouldn’t you want to ensure greater transparency and clarity for your customers when it comes to what you’re doing with their data?
Admittedly, most of us never take the time to actually read privacy policies. Since we often just blindly accept them and move on, you may assume how well written they are really doesn’t matter. But as people become increasingly sensitive to data privacy issues that may well change. If it does, chances are that most people will be disappointed with what they find. That’s because privacy policies are often dense, full of legalese, and incredibly difficult to make sense of, though there are some exceptions.
In an August 2015 study, TIME teamed up with the Center for Plain Language to rank the privacy policies of seven well-known tech companies: Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Lyft, Twitter, and Uber. As part of the effort, a panel of judges reviewed the content by hand while running it through Acrolinx’s content optimization software for additional analysis. The goal was to evaluate each company’s policies in terms of their:
- Organization, navigation, signposting, and information design, all of which facilitate comprehension at the highest level
- Sentence-level issues such as sentence structure, word choice, and tone of voice that help readers decode what the policies actually say
- The “spirit” of the law, which is an indication of how transparent the policies are
If we hone in on that second point for a minute — the part about the language being used — the study looked at a number of familiar areas. These included overall compliance with plain language guidelines; the average number of issues identified per sentence; the readability, informality, and liveliness of the writing; and the average number of words per sentence. All of these factors play an important role in determining how easy a piece of content is or isn’t to read and understand.
As it turns out, the results of the study varied considerably from company to company.
So Who Came out on Top?
Once the analysis was done there were some clear results. Google and Facebook performed best and were cited for having done a “good job of communicating their privacy policies in a way that allows consumers to understand and make decisions,” according to the study.
Meanwhile LinkedIn, Uber, and Apple wound up in the middle of the pack, having done some things better than others. Bringing up the rear were Twitter and Lyft, which were both called out for doing a “bad job of communicating their policies.” Their policies included long sentences, poor formatting, and a style that typifies legalese.
Why You Should Care
No matter what your view on privacy policies may be — and to be honest, most of us probably haven’t spent a lot of time formulating opinions about them — the reason we think this study is important is because it helps to reinforce just how much your language matters. Brands that take the time to create content that’s engaging and easy to understand always get a better result with their target audience. That’s true whether we’re talking about privacy policies like in this example, web copy, technical documentation, marketing collateral, or any other customer-facing content that you create.
So always take the time to ensure that your content is as well crafted as possible. Not only will your customers appreciate it, you’ll also get better results with it.