Text Sells

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you still need the words to get the job done. That’s what I found out when I read an article written by Robert Gorell recently about updating a website that sells to a niche audience. If you think you can’t improve the way your site sells its goods to your customers, keep reading.

I love reading this kind of stuff, though I know I’d hate to be in this situation myself. I like to think of myself as ready, willing, and able to write about almost anything (after doing the appropriate research, of course), but I have to admit the situation Gorell wrote about drew me up short. What exactly can you say about 100-ton drill rigs?

A reader had written to the Future Now website with just that quandary. She was supposed to write copy that would do well in the search engines, and she was stuck. The client sells new and used construction equipment at live auctions. You have to trust that your client knows their business better than you do. Presumably, that includes the nature of their market – and that’s where part of the problem sat.

The client was convinced that “all they need to do is show pictures of the massive, earth-moving objects, list some basic technical specs, and that’s all their audience needs to know before buying one of these things at a live auction.” That’s what they told their new copy writer, anyway. No wonder she felt stuck.

If you’ve ever engaged with a client who does business-to-business sales, you may have encountered the very same attitude: our products are pretty standard, our customers know what they want when they come to our site, so there’s not a lot to say; we just show them what we have and they buy what they need. Companies that sell plumbing supplies, pool maintenance supplies, hardware, or similar items online may have this attitude, and their web sites reflect it. Such clients, Gorell pointed out, make some very dangerous assumptions. They may know their market, but that doesn’t mean they know the best way to reach it. That’s where SEO comes in. In the next section, I’m going to take a look at some of those assumptions.

{mospagebreak title=Unpacking Assumptions}

It’s an old saying that the customer is always right. That’s not true in this case. Of course, it’s equally untrue that an SEO or business consultant has all the answers. The client and the consultant need to work together to find them.

Gorell’s article includes a list of dangerous assumptions, and I’ll get to them in a minute, but he doesn’t even put the most dangerous one he identifies on his list. The client assumes that their customers “already know what kind of equipment they’re looking for.” Well, of course they do. If the client’s site consists entirely of images and technical descriptions, then the only customers who will find the site in the first place are those who already know what they’re looking for!

Gorell thinks the most dangerous assumption made by the SEO copy writer is that the client’s assumptions are true. Admittedly, that’s also very dangerous, because it prevents the copy writer from thinking outside the box. If you can’t see past your client’s assumptions, you’ll have trouble making their site perform better.

So what are the client’s assumptions? Here’s the list, modified slightly to make it more generally applicable:

  • There’s not much to say about the product or service.
  • Pictures are more important than words.
  • The problem with doing SEO on this site is that “there’s so little to say.”
  • The site’s visitors all fall into a particularly narrow niche (in this case, they’re all from construction companies).
  • The site’s visitors already know exactly what they want.
  • In the client’s field, selling goods or services comes down to a matter of price competition.
  • The products for sale on the site do not need to be described with text.
  • Pictures can tell most of the story.
  • Page rank and content are independent variables.

For the last point, I think Gorell means one’s position in the search engine results pages (SERPs), and not PageRank, which is something else. In any case, if we take the first assumption that I identified – that all of the client’s customers know what they’re looking for – and assume it’s mistaken, what happens? All of a sudden, practically none of the items on the bulleted list above are certain!

Gorell notes a false premise that the client makes, which brings that last bullet point into sharp focus – “We’ll pay you to help us rank higher, buy you shouldn’t have to do much writing to accomplish that.” Even if our intrepid copy writer could make this client rank higher without doing too much writing, it seems unlikely that the client’s sales would increase much. One assumes that increasing sales is the real reason this client wants to rank higher. But sales won’t increase unless the site gets the kind of page copy that attracts customers. Or as Gorell put it, “has a search engine ever bought an oscillator at auction?”

{mospagebreak title=Know Your Customers, Add What’s Missing}

Different kinds of customers need different kinds of products – and quite possibly different kinds of information. It’s unlikely that the needs of a big-budget construction project manager are going to be the same as the needs of an owner-operator of an excavation construction company – but all either of them would get, the way the client’s site currently stands, is a picture and some technical specs. That’s probably not enough for either of them.

Keep in mind that this client sells both new and used equipment. If you’re going to purchase a drill that may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’ll want to make sure that money’s not going to waste. You’ll want to know what it’s done (if it’s used), what condition it’s in, what kinds of jobs it’s good for, what kind of guarantee it comes with, whether replacement parts are available (and from where), what brand it is, how good that particular brand is…do I really need to go on?

Actually, I do. You see, I was just talking about the products. Now we get to the company. You’re not going to buy from a company you don’t trust. And you’re buying these things at a live auction. How long has the company been in business? What kind of reputation does it have? What do their customers think of them? What do you need to know when you go to one of their auctions? Is everything sold “as is” or is there some kind of protection if there are problems with the item? In short, why should you trust the company?

All of this information needs to be added to the client’s web site. That’s a lot of writing, but it’s hardly a waste of time. Not convinced? Let’s look at a couple of other businesses where it could be argued that pictures tell the whole story: real estate and art sales.

{mospagebreak title=Words and Pictures Working Together}

When was the last time you saw a real estate site trying to sell a house or apartment with just a few pictures of the residence in question? I don’t know about you, but I never have. Sure, pictures are an important part of the process; I’ve seen slide shows and videos used to good effect. But you’re always going to see the explanatory text.

And there’s a reason for that. You can’t always tell from the pictures that the kitchen’s been entirely redone with upgraded appliances just last year. You can’t tell that the carpeting is less than six months old. You can’t tell that the home is centrally located near schools and shopping. You can’t tell that the house has central heat and air. You can’t tell that the apartment complex includes gorgeous walking trails, a fully-equipped exercise room, a heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi – I’m sure you get the idea by now.

The words and the pictures must work together to get all these points across. Some things are easier to convey with pictures, while others make more sense to put into words. And even if you could convey certain things in pictures, you’d want to put them in words anyway since that’s how the search engines find them – and by extension, that’s how anyone searching for what you’re selling will find them.

Okay, so what about art? Isn’t that the quintessential case where you can mostly use images? Um, no. Maybe you think you can’t equate the auction of construction equipment with the auction of fine art. Christie’s certainly doesn’t; they hype their auctions a lot more than the construction equipment company described here!

In his article, Gorell linked to a page of the art auction house’s web site dedicated to an upcoming auction on twentieth-century British art. Sure, there’s a slide show highlighting pieces with an image and a short description, but there’s more. There’s contact information, links to an auction calendar, and text about the auction house itself. Christie’s describes its experience in this particular category of art sales, how its auctions have done in the past, whose work they have sold (I didn’t know Sir Winston Churchill was an artist!), and more. If even an art auction house doesn’t rely on “just pictures” to sell their products, why should you – and why should your clients?

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