One of the undeniable roles of marketing or publicity is to ‘big up’ – a company, or its products and services. I’m no stranger to putting a bit of glitz on the oily rag myself, but there’s a big difference between using a few well-chosen adjectives than using language which customers don’t connect with.

I chose my words carefully there when I said “language which customers don’t connect with”. They understand it, but they have tothink to understand it: it’s not language they typically use themselves.

We’re not talking about the flowery blurb used to sell a product or service, either: we’re talking about words used to actually namethem.

Let’s look at a few examples I’ve found on some real websites.

Term usedTo actually describe
Learning intervention Training course
Human asset development Training
Perimeter defence system Security software
Human capital acquisition Recruitment

Companies seem to want to use these terms to make what they do seem more important than their competitors’ offerings. I’ve actually been told, for example, “no, we offer more than just training courses, (as if that’s somehow sordid) we offer real training interventions that create lasting behavioural change etc”. When questioned, the “real training interventions” are indeed training courses, perhaps with some up-front qualification/assessment so that the course teaches the right thing. Or perhaps it’s a workshop, or a coaching session. But you get the picture.

There are three really, really big problems with puffing up what you do to this extent.

The first is that such phrases need mental translation. Yes, most business people do understand them – but they have to do a double-take to process them, usually performing a mental translation into ‘training course’ or whatever. There’s a really great website usability book by Steve Kurg, called Don’t Make Me Think. The title says it all – you want readers to move from page to page without having to stop, think and process things. Website visitors want clear information quickly; anything else is just a frustration.

The second is that these grand-sounding phrases don’t have any beneficial effect. They no more convince people that you’ve found a miraculous new way of teaching people (or whatever service you offer) than I would have of convincing people I’m Nicole Kidman by simply putting on a £10,000 designer dress.

The third is that these are terrible phrases to feed to search engines – not because search engines care about the clarity of your language, but because they are not the phrases most people will put into a search engine when searching for a service. If you look at the table above, people are going to use the words in the right-hand column, not the left. Why? Because they are direct and understandable – the words they actually use on a day-to-day basis.

It’s a conversation I often have with customers when I am building a website, especially when naming services, or website sections. Sometimes the conversations can be laboured, while customers become accustomed to the idea that unless they use words that customers put into search engines, they won’t be found on the Web.

There is a balance, though – search engines do not come first. The website has to talk effectively to customers. It has to connect with them – and represent the culture and vocabulary of the organisation.

There are three golden rules:

  • Service and product names should be easily understood by a wide spectrum of people inside (and outside) the company’s target market.
  • Service and product names should reflect what customers would type when searching for those things.
  • A company should feel comfortable with the names used to describe its products and services.

The bottom line is that it’s only a website. You’re selling services. You have a business need to attract people to your website and then to convert them into customers. Anything that does this in an ineffective way translates into fewer visitors being converted into even fewer customers – and a higher cost of sale, based on less effective communications.

So now, is it training you sell, or learning interventions?