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Product descriptions have long been advocated as both a sales and an SEO tactic.
But is this a bit 'web 2.0', or even 'web 1.0'?
Here is some evidence that product descriptions could be a red herring.
1. Badly written product descriptions will devalue products & websites
You might think it's hardly an argument against using product descriptions, to say that they are unhelpful when not done well. That could be said of any feature, surely?
Possibly, but I'm inclined to believe that the subjectivity involved in writing and reading a product description makes them dangerous.
I'm not talking about functional descriptions which, much like product specifications, are often necessary.
I'm thinking more of things like style advice, or usage scenarios or just a description that's supposed to be classy not hyperbolic.
Here's an example from the travel industry, a hotel room provided by W Hotels. The enormous description makes the page less user friendly (blocky text) but it's also just bad.
Click through if you can't read it easily (maybe this product description is a genius ploy for backlinks?).
2. High-street fashion retailers don't seem bothered about product descriptions
I went to the three biggest fashion retailers and clicked on the first men's jacket for sale.
Below you can see the extent of the product descriptions. They don't really say more than a specification would.
Only Gap uses a full sentence (with subject and verb), though arguably has the most dated website of the three.
Ecommerce functionality now often includes up-sell ('style with'), so there's no need for extra copy for this purpose. See Zara for a good example.
3. SEO has moved on
Can we truly say product descriptions are important for SEO?
Keywords, we are told, just aren't as important any more, at least from Google's point of view.
Yes, they may help with internal search, and page titles and page descriptions should still be optimised, but much more important is being mobile-ready and easy to use.
That means fast, simple and enjoyable.
The Tinderisation of fashion ecommerce shows how superfluous text is to the enjoyment of the browser. Users want to look at products then approve or dismiss them, not read about how the products will make them feel.
4. International visitors don't care
Perhaps a tenuous point this one, but it's fair to say that images are universal and copy is not.
5. Text clutters and distracts
Look at most best practice advice for product pages and bullet points are championed as the most salient method of presenting information.
Web users simply don't have the concentration required to read paragraphs of text.
So, are product descriptions a waste of time?
I have worked clientside and written product descriptions in fashion. It took up a chunk of time and I'm not entirely convinced it was worth it. Content execs can spend too long doing this kind of work.
I've also known agencies spend time rewriting descriptive copy, saying it was important for SEO, but in fact it felt more like it was something tangible/easy the agency could delegate to less experienced staff, and that didn't have all that great an impact.
Automation of product descriptions is now seen through companies such as Wordsmith, which can turn CSVs of product specs into prose.
Despite my repeated attempts at playing devil's advocate, it would be bonkers to dismiss product descriptions (after all, I've previously written guides for product descriptions).
But I suppose I wanted to start a discussion about web design and about skills - are some sites (SMEs? Brands with legacy infrastructure?) concentrating on features such as product descriptions because they don't have facility to go after priorities such as better imagery, layout testing and UX innovation?
I think it's undoubtedly the case that as the skills gap is filled, the role of content management will change for many, moving from SEO and writing towards human-centred design and information architecture.
On a mobile device text has to be spot on. Any extraneous waffle (irony alert) is a conversion barrier.
As an addendum let me add that I'm aware that description is vital for considered purchases - I've include a few below.
Ultimately, copy creates trust when used well. This trust might be secondary to style in fast fashion but it's vitally important for houses, cars, professional services, new brands or those seeking to make an impact (and the list no doubt continues).
Some context is more important in the product description of a pricey designer item (for life, not Christmas).
Runners need to trust that their shoe offers them benefits. Their health is potentially at stake.
Do I really need a Land Rover? Yes, says the product copy, this is why this £80,000 car is better than all the others.
If you’re unconvinced by Ben’s arguments, check out Econsultancy’s range of Copywriting & Content Marketing Training Courses.