Most people have probably heard the story about how UK retailer GameStation convinced 7,500 online shoppers to sell them their souls as part of their Terms of Service (TOS).
The story is both funny and frightening, since it highlights how much can be inserted into a TOS document and how few people actually read them.
GameStation got a lot of attention for the stunt, and rightly so, but was candid about why they did it. It was an April Fool's Day gag, to be sure, but it also highlighted that most people don't actually read TOS documents -- GameStation says 88 percent of those purchasing on that day didn't do so.
So, why don't people read their TOS documents when shopping online or installing new software?
Probably because these documents are huge, legal papers with a lot of "hereinafters" and "on condition ofs" in them. Pick a random Website and check out its Terms of Service and look at how long it is.
For fun, I picked on Amazon and loaded up its TOS page for electronic downloads. Printed at its default font size, in 12-point type, it spans three pages of huge paragraphs written in sections and sub-sections, many of which are in all-caps.
That is one of the shorter ones around, too. With terms as complex and full of legal phraseology as they are, most people find them too onerous to read. So how can companies who want to engender consumer trust while maintaining their legal protection do so?
I ran that Amazon TOS through an online tool called Readability.info to see what it had to say. By way of comparison, I ran one of my own blogs from Internet Evolution as well. The results are pretty amazing (and complicated-looking), but one thing stands out: Most print and Web news outlets aim for an 8th grade level of reading. My own article came in at about a 7.8 grade level for reading. The TOS? It came in at an 11th-year reading level.
That alone should tell you something.
So it became obvious that an expert should be consulted about all of this. Intellectual property attorney and patent lawyer Michael Montgomery says, "There is a delicate balance between legal requirements, who wants which terms, and readability." But he warns that, unreadable as they may be, they are usually enforced as binding contracts. "Some of the specific wording, emphasis, uppercase letters, and such," he continues, "are in view of various laws for those specific kinds of terms.
He then pointed out that a good example of a readable TOS can be found at WordPress.com. So I ran that through Readability.info and found that it has a grade level reading of 9, much better than the 11th of the Amazon TOS.
Most TOS documents, being legal contracts, are written by lawyers and rarely involve anyone other than the legal adviser. A business that takes the time to include both a copywriter and a lawyer in the process would likely find that they've got a much more readable, understandable, and trustworthy document for its customers.
— Craig Agranoff is an entrepreneur and national social media consultant as well as a published specialist in online reputation management and monitoring.