Even in the days of massive retail sites with thousands of products that are often "bulk uploaded" from a database, product descriptions are still a critical factor in deciding whether a visitor to an ecommerce store buys or not. Working together, the description and photos should give the website visitor all the same information, and the same sense of desire, that they'd get by viewing the product in a physical store. If they're left in any doubt about exactly what the features of the product are, or how it will benefit them, they'll move on without hesitation.

Writing product descriptions, along with having great product photos, is therefore a vital tool which the store owner can use to take control of their sales.

Writing product descriptions is an art, but once mastered it can provide SEO benefits as well as compelling visitors to click on the 'buy' button. A best practice includes doing AB or multivariate testing of different product descriptions to increase their effectiveness. For example, the above test from Talbot recovery tested only text changes on this signup page. Their testing group Fathom recorded a 184% improvement with the copy on the version to the right (with more bullet points) at a 99% confidence level. (Test results supplied by Which Test Won.)

The Challenge Of Writing Effective Product Descriptions

Product descriptions are tough to write well, because in a short space of typically 60-80 words they need to:

  • Persuasively describe the benefits of the product and what problem it solves
  • Describe any important features which aren't clear from the product photos
  • Use SEO keyphrases to make the page rank more highly in search engines
  • Differentiate the product from similar ones in a way that encourages purchase
  • Perhaps explain why the product should be purchased from that website versus others

Faced with such a challenge, website owners might be tempted to use the standard description provided by the manufacturer, or copy text from a competitor's website. But this could lead to Google penalizing the page as it would contain duplicate content, and it misses a big opportunity to give the ecommerce site a unique voice which builds the brand and keeps visitors coming back.

There are plenty of professional copywriters who specialize in writing product descriptions for ecommerce, who the job can be outsourced to. Yet many online store owners will take the view that no-one knows the product or market as well as they do, in which case there are a few things to consider when writing product descriptions that sell.

Establishing The 'Voice' Of The Product

To set the tone when writing product descriptions, knowing the audience is half the battle - Moms in their 40s will respond to a different style than teenage boys do. But the voice of the tone is important too. For example, Moms in their 40s might be the target market for a fashionable handbag or a game for their child - but those products wouldn't be written about in the same way.

The identity of the brand should also be considered. For example, the J. Peterman Company gives products in their men's and women's ranges a different voice, but the brand's tone is so strong it'd be instantly recognizable even out of context.

Structuring the description

It can be a good idea to separate out information which may not be emotionally captivating, but still important to know, such as product dimensions, so it can be easily browsed without getting in the way of the main product description. This approach follows the typical buying cycle or funnel through which each buyer moves as they build their interest in a product, which typically results in a desire for more detailed information as the buyer approaches the purchasing stage. The British electrical retailer Comet does this well, by having a separate 'technical specifications' panel. This allows them to concentrate on writing product descriptions that emphasize the benefits, knowing that the nitty-gritty is all in place.

The structure of the main description should be kept in mind too - opening with an attention-grabbing question or statement, moving on to describing how it can fit into the customer's life, and ending with a strong call-to-action. A call-to-action is the customer's reason to take action by clicking the 'buy' button right now: this could include 'free shipping this week only' or 'enter this code for 20% off your purchase'.

Keeping this structure in mind also helps to keep the inspiration flowing when writing product descriptions for tens or hundreds of items.

Writing Product Descriptions That Turn Features Into Benefits

It's often said that people don't buy a drill, they buy a hole in a wall. This means that people buy products to solve a problem, so writing product descriptions is all about showing how the features of the product will benefit the buyer.

That means that it's of no real interest in itself that a shaving foam contains extracts of Aloe Vera (feature), but it becomes relevant when mentioning that it means it won't irritate your skin like other products might (benefit).

The same feature might offer a different benefit depending on the target audience. For example, a 100% cotton t-shirt might have the benefits of being:

  1. Easy to wash (for mothers)
  2. Lightweight to battle the summer heat (for women in their 20s planning a vacation)
  3. Environmentally compatible because it's made of man-made fibers (for an audience which is concerned about environmental impact)

Econsultancy has some great examples of product descriptions which effectively sell the benefits and give the reader a vision of how the product will fit into their lifestyle.

Writing Product Descriptions With SEO In Mind

A page of original content about a product is a boon for getting a page indexed in search engines. While writing product descriptions is primarily an exercise in appealing to the potential customer, a few simple considerations will make sure the SEO potential is maximized too:

  • Include a headline which uses the targeted SEO keyphrase, but also grabs the reader - just using the name of the product is a missed opportunity
  • Use keywords selectively in the description. So if the keyphrase is 'men's cutthroat razor', it's a missed opportunity to call it a 'shaving device' in the description
  • Make use of image captions. Rather than just the product name, this is another chance to include a keyword-rich sentence which also appeals to the customer
  • Include the keyword in the title and description meta-tags in the source code of the web page
  • Include the keyword in alt tags of any images, in title tags associated with links out from the description (if links to other sections are used) and also in the anchor text of any links pointing to the page
  • Assign high level headline tags like H1, h3 or H3 to headlines and subheads containing the keywords
  • Use the keywords in the file (URL) names associated with the page (as part of all of the page depending on the naming structure associated with the site's shopping cart)
  • Consider using keywords in tags associated with the page

While this article doesn't focus on keyword research, it is a wise idea to use search terms which fit multiple parameters including:

  1. Describing the product in the same way the target audience uses when looking for the product (often gained from the site's analytics programs and using a keyword research tool
  2. Looking for search volume in a keyword research tool to ensure there is sufficient search volume for these terms
  3. Assessing the level of competition for the term (either through pay per click estimators, analyzing the top search results and looking at factors like competitor page rank, number of items in the index, or competitor traffic using audit tools such as Compete.com)

How To Constantly Improve Product Description Writing

While using the above approach as a starting point, there will come a time when the more diligent eCommerce marketer will subject their product descriptions to some type of testing. Typically this means using some type of web page optimization program (or using a pay per click campaign with alternate landing pages) that can provide testing of the page against an alternate. While there are many tools for this (Google Website Optimizer is an example of a fully featured tool that is available free), the important point is to subject descriptions to the same rigor of testing that other elements of the page are such as "buy buttons" or offers. And while this type of process may seem to yield small improvements, if done across a large number of pages, with high traffic patterns or over a long period of time, the cumulative results can be quite profitable.