Can you say Google in Chinese? Do you know which social network dwarfs Facebook in Japan? Climbing the search engine rankings can seem a big enough challenge in English, without considering other languages. But optimizing your site for a multilingual audience can reap big rewards, by taking advantage of growing, relatively untapped markets.
Internet use is increasing rapidly - mainly among non-English speakers. Fewer than 27 percent of web users speak English, according to Internet World Stats, and more than half of Google searches are in other languages. The number of Arabic users grew a huge 2501.2 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared to just 301.4 percent for English use. And research shows consumers are reluctant to buy goods online if they can’t read about them in their native language.
It’s surprising that online marketers have been slow to take advantage of this trend. While there’s hot competition for the most popular keywords in English, this isn’t always the case in other languages. Translating your website can be a simple way to massively increase your audience. And since there’s less competition, it takes less effort to climb the search engine rankings.
This might seem a daunting prospect at first, and it can take a little time to get it right. We’ve probably all come across poorly translated sites, which are a huge turn-off to users. And as with all marketing, a little local knowledge can go a long way. Researching your target markets, choosing your keywords carefully, and checking out the competition will help ensure your site isn’t lost in translation.
A sold global SEO strategy begins with a firm understanding on what words convert in other languages and building around those keywords.
Research your keywords, rather than translating them
Keyword research should be the first step to identify potential markets and show levels of competition. Of course the best option, especially if you don’t know the language at all, is to hire SEO specialists that are native-speaking translators.
One common mistake is to assume that direct translations of keywords will work just as well in other languages. This isn’t always the case. For example most Italians tend to search for “voli low cost” for low-cost flights, rather than the direct translation. And while the standard French translation of “car insurance” is “l’assurance automobile” the most popular search terms is “auto assurance”.
Start by translating your keywords and brainstorming similar terms. Then check with a native speaker for suggestions. Remember that some languages, such as German, often tend to use English for technical terms. And don’t ignore differences between dialects - for example a coche is a car in Spain, but a baby stroller in much of Latin America!
Ask yourself whether the keywords are relevant to the site content and likely to translate into sales. Free tools, such as Google Adwords and Wordtracker, allow you to set a specific language and location and check the popularity and level of competition for keywords.
If you’re considering targeting China, use Baidu Keyword, while Yandex Wordstat can assist with Russian research. By joining Baidu’s pay-per-click network you can take advantage of a number of free SEO tools.
It’s worth paying for a sample Adwords or Overture PPC campaign. Monitor this closely for a day or two, and use the conversion rate to guess the value of each click. This can help you eliminate keywords that are not competitive enough and likely to bring less business.
As in English, keyword research needs to be an ongoing process, as all search engines regularly change their algorithms. Use tools such as Yandex Metrika to analyze your results of your campaign. Consider the competition, and if they are achieving better rankings for a similar set of keywords, try to find out why.
Secure a great domain name
It’s best to have an in-country domain name for each target market, rather than using subdomains or subfolders of your main site. Many search engines give priority to high level in-country domain names, such as www.brandname.fr or www.brandname.de. This is particularly important in China, since Baidu strongly favors local sites.
The good news is, that there’s less competition for top domain names in most other countries. It’s more likely you’ll be able to secure a domain with your top-performing keywords.
Optimize by country, not language
If you translate your website for Latin American readers, then you’ll also pick up European users and Spanish speakers in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper to have one Spanish website for all these countries. But you’ll get better results by having separate, optimized sites, for each target country. Here are some best practices when building out multilingual websites.
Google and other search engines penalize duplication, but they don’t recognize it in translation. This means your French and German sites can be direct translations of your English site, but you should change it for your French-Canadian site.
Global companies take different approaches. The car manufacturer Ford, for example, uses unique written content on each site. This is an expensive and time-consuming approach, but it is beneficial for SEO purposes. This helps it pick up users searching for “non-brand” terms such as “compact cars” and allows it to tailor the sites to local tastes. A more cost-effective solution is to have unique content for the top–level pages, with duplication on the lower level ones.
Optimizing by country allows you to secure a top-level domain, such as .jp or .ru for each site. Even if you use subdomains off your main site, you can also use geotargeting tools to set the location of your website to the right country, ensuring you reach users who’ll find the content relevant.
But perhaps more importantly, it’s vital to consider the differences in language, dialect and culture between countries. Just as there are numerous differences between US and UK English, the same applies to Spanish, French and Arabic. Targeting by country means you can include local cultural and geographic references, giving it an authentic feel.
Target the right search engines
While Google is the world’s biggest player, it’s not king everywhere. Yahoo! is still the leader in Japan, while most South Koreans opt for the home-grown Naver. One reason for Google’s poor performance in the Chinese market is that many people struggle to pronounce it. Until recently, it was known as Gu Ge. And Yandex's popularity is linked to its ability to handle the complexities of the Russian language.
It’s essential to familiarize yourself with the nuances of different search engines. Although Yahoo! Japan is powered by Google, it tends to prefer a slightly higher keyword density, of roughly 7 to 8 percent, and place more weight on directory listings. Re-writing your pages to include more keywords, and submitting it to relevant directories should be your first steps.
Baidu gives greater weight to meta-tags, while it pays less attention to in-bound links. It also favors optimized image titles and alt text. Since Baidu’s crawlers are less powerful than Google’s, it’s best to keep the most important information at the top of your pages and in the titles. While Google prefers links from sites that are perceived as authoritative, Baidu pays more attention to quantity. Links from low-ranking sites can help improve your rankings.
Yandex’s Thematic Citation Index is similar to Google’s PageRank. But one big difference is it counts out-bound links to relative sites as well as incoming links. However it doesn’t count links from web forums, unmoderated directories or sites which aren’t controlled by humans.
It’s also more effective at geo-tags, and will use a computer’s IP address and geographical information to narrow results. Yandex Catalog allows you to assign up to seven regions to your site, allowing you to target specific cities. Avoid using too many ads, pop-ups or banners on a site, since these are penalized.
Building in-country links
A link-building campaign is the next step to climbing the SERPs. A good starting point is targeting web directories for each different country. But if you’re in a competitive niche, you’ll need to build more back-links to your site.
This is more important in some markets than others. In Russia, Yandex only counts links perceived as high-quality, so you should only target sites with a high Thematic Citation or Quotation Index. Distributing press releases using wire services, such as InterFax and InFox is a good way to get these.
If you don’t speak the language, hire native-speaking translators or copywriters to identify authoritative sites and create high-quality content. One plus point is that Google’s duplication rule doesn’t apply across languages, so you can reuse translated content on other websites.
Social media accounts in your target languages will also help you build contacts, get chatting and get links to your site. But remember Facebook and Twitter aren't the favorites everywhere (and are still banned in China). Japanese users love Mixi, Russians prefer VKontakte, and Google's Orkut is a close rival of Facebook in Brazil.
Whatever the language, SEO can seem like an uphill struggle – and then a constant battle to stay in the same place! Optimizing your site for a foreign market takes time and you won’t see results overnight. But it can have huge payoffs, in reaching a growing, global audience.