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Search Engine Marketing in Multiple Languages
Ian Harris

When SEO meets localization and benefits from it


You can hear the sighs of relief as the website localization project ends or enters maintenance mode. However organized the client and however professional the localization vendor, website localization is a painful process. Now it’s over — at least we can tick the box that says, “have multilingual website.” After all, is that not the reason we localized in the first place?

In the late 1990s, companies wanted their first websites for the same reason — to tick the box. They soon started, however, to judge and optimize their websites based on hits, then page views, then unique and repeat visitors. Now, any web marketer worth his or her salt will be working to maximize conversions. A conversion on a website can be a sale on an e-commerce site, the completion of a “contact me” form on a company information site or whatever action you want your web visitors to make as a result of visiting the site. Conversions must be clearly defined and tracked, and then the site must be optimized for maximum conversions. The major part of this process is search engine marketing.

While we may breathe a sigh of relief that the site is localized, the real reason the company embarked upon this painful journey in the first place was to increase conversions by reaching new markets.

The localization project should not stop once the site is translated, since a localized site with no conversions is a waste of all that pain. It is now when website marketing should begin. In fact, to do the job correctly, website marketing should have begun prior to the first translation.

To consider website marketing in other languages, let us first describe website marketing on the English site. This can consist of a number of channels.

Search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is tailoring the content and the structure of the site and pages so that the search engines rank the site in the natural search listings. The natural search listings on Google appear in the area of the screen marked with an A in “A Google book search page for ‘computer books.’”

Pay-per-click (PPC). PPC is an increasingly important method of driving traffic where the company bids money to appear high in the search engine’s sponsored listings. In “A Google book search page for ‘computer books,’” this is the area marked B. Bids are placed on keywords which show advertisements when an internet user types that word into the search engine. The highest bid shows at the top of the list, and the company only pays the bid price if the user actually clicks on the advertisement and visits the company’s website.

Banner ads, affiliate marketing and others. Many other channels exist that add to the mix of methods of driving traffic and conversions. Their suitability depends on the nature of the website that is being promoted.

A Google book search page for “computer books”

Multilingual web marketing
We will concentrate on the main two methods, SEO and PPC, to see how a multilingual site could be marketed.

There is normally some success on the English language website — or whatever the source language of the site — before the multilingual marketing begins, so it is important to understand what we can reuse from the source language marketing; what source language marketing we can simply translate; and which elements we must entirely develop again.

Some major false assumptions that are made when considering promotion of the multilingual versions of the site are:

1. For SEO, optimize the English site, then translate it well, and it will be optimized in-language by default. Multilingual SEO is often ignored because of the belief that if the English site is optimized for search engines, the language sites will be too. This is not the case.

2. For PPC, simply translate the ad copy and keywords. Imagine a set of English keywords for a site selling a glass replacement service for cars. The marketing specialist or PPC executive would use his or her knowledge of the industry and the language to expand out a set of keywords that a user might type into a search engine. They might come up with terms such as vehicle glass replacement, car windscreen fixing, windshield repair and so on.

For this simple service, there is a multitude of ways of describing the window, the vehicle and the replacement service that spawn a large number of keyword combinations. A good translator would take each one and translate to the most common, most sensible alternative in his or her language. Unfortunately, this will lead to a reduction in keywords. Windscreen and windshield may translate to the same common term in French. Replacement and repair may translate to the common term used in French for glass replacement. This is not what is required.

3. Google is the most common global search engine and therefore the one to consider. True, Google is the most important player in the global search engine market, but in Russia the search engine Yandex is significantly outperforming Google and likewise for Baidu in China. Whatever your target market, you need to consider the engines in that country.

What, therefore, should we actually do to market our site in-language?

How to localize a site and remain search-engine friendly
Fortunately, some simple steps can be taken to ensure the site remains searchable in-language. However, similarly to working with your English site, in order to maximize the return on investment (ROI) from the localized sites, further steps will maximize your returns. Here are steps to follow in translating the site.

Find a quality localization company. Ensure that you ask for examples of websites that it has localized before, and have your in-country people — if you have them — validate the translations on the reference sites.

Get your page-by-page keyword glossary translated and approved first. Much effort went into the generation of keywords for each page of the English site. Your English pages are rich with these keywords. Put the same effort into the translation of these keywords. This should be done first, before any localization of the pages begins. These translations should be approved by your in-country marketing representatives if you have them or be double-checked by your translation company (using specialist marketing translators) if not.

Ensure that the site is professionally localized. The site must be well formed (no broken HTML or other code), must be translated well and must not contain broken links (links to pages that have not been migrated to the language site and therefore throw an error). Quality localization requires a quality localization company using specialist filters to protect page code and to check it once the localization is complete.

When translating the website, use the keyword glossary electronically. Do not leave it to chance. Your translation company should be using the translated keyword lists in electronic glossaries so that the translators are automatically prompted with the approved language version of the keyword whenever they are translating an English equivalent. This will ensure that any chosen keyword for which this page is optimized, regardless of how contrived the sentence is (in order to use that keyword), and will be translated in the same way each time this keyword appears. This ensures that the translated pages are equally as rich in the desired keywords.

Following these steps will ensure that the site gets the basics right and can be effectively indexed on the correct keywords by the engines. But to maximize your returns and to ensure you are getting the correct prominence on the search engines, you need to read on.

Advanced multilingual search marketing
If you want to perform in your foreign markets and fully capitalize on your localization investment, you may want to consider these steps.

Engine-specific optimization. This involves the identification of important engines by country for your target market. Google is not necessarily the dominant player in all countries. In order to identify, then optimize, and monitor for these engines, you will probably require support from external specialists.

PPC in each locale. PPC is the fastest method to achieving search engine prominence in any country. PPC gets further attention later in the article because of its potential in multilingual markets.

Recreation of page titles.
The page title is one of the most important pieces of text for most search engines. It can be a very worthwhile exercise, following localization, having the page titles rewritten for the local market. This should be performed by web marketing specialists.

Link-building campaigns. In the same way as you have built vast numbers of links to your English site, the in-language version is a rich and often untapped source of links.

ROI tracking. The great thing about your search campaigns is that using the latest analytics tools you can determine exactly where each internet order has come from. You can track which keyword was used on which engine and tie these back to the profit you received for the order. ROI tracking is essential, and it will determine where next month’s focus will lie for your in-country search engine spend.

Multilingual PPC
You can achieve instant success using PPC. A campaign can be set up, and your website can start receiving visitors and orders as soon as it goes live. A company selling golf equipment can buy its chosen keywords, create some ad copy (the text that shows when the user searches for those keywords) and start receiving visitors straight away. Using PPC advertising, the golf-equipment supplier can tailor its message on the search engine to attract the user and can choose in which position the company would like to appear on the list (as long as it can afford the clicks). Contrast this with normal SEO work where position in the list and the text that displays to the searcher are largely up to the discretion of the search engine’s algorithms.

You can also instantly waste money using PPC. The keyword 'cheap flights' achieves millions of searches every month in the United Kingdom, with some companies bidding over £2 per click. Imagine the spend on clicks on this keyword if few people actually booked on your site.

Using PPC, each click can be tracked to completion, so it is possible to see, for each keyword, how many clicks it received, how much it cost, how many orders were achieved from those clicks and how much profit was made on those orders. PPC marketing can therefore be analyzed precisely to the penny and then adjusted to try to maximize the return.

In order to manage a PPC campaign a marketer needs to:

  • Create a keyword list including every phrase a user who may be interested in the product or service may type in.
  • Organize these keywords around ad text that will show when those keywords are searched.
  • Set budgets so that costs do not grow too quickly, but so that conversions are maximized.
  • Track and monitor the impressions (number of times the ad showed due to that keyword), clicks, conversions, costs and profit on every individual keyword.
  • Change bid prices, ad text, landing pages (the page at which the user arrives when the ad is clicked), match types (keywords can be matched in multiple ways to search text) and other variables to optimize the performance of the whole campaign.

Doing all this is not easy, especially considering that even a small campaign selling one or only a few products can easily spawn over a thousand keywords.

Now imagine the campaign in multiple languages. The management problem gets a whole lot worse when you cannot even read the keywords or ad text.

Keyword lists must be created in-language. Simply translating the English text is not the correct approach. Translating keywords leads to a reduction in keywords, whereas a good keyword list explores all colloquialisms, common misspellings and all terms for all items. See the simple example of, as we would say in the United Kingdom, car hire.

In English, there are a number of ways of referring to a car (I have chosen four), and a number of ways of referring to the act of renting a car (again I have chosen four). This four-by-four matrix would multiply up to 16 possible keywords, although for simplicity I have included only four. A good French translator may choose the best translation for each of these terms independently and would arrive at “location de voiture.” You can see the keyword reduction illustrated in the diagram.

Even instructing a translator to “have a think” while translating is not good enough. What is required is a systematic expansion of every possible term. It requires an understanding of the website’s aims, knowledge of searching and tools to help the process.

Ad text must then be created. Again, this is not a translation job. There are restrictions on the length of each line, so each character has to be used wisely to sell the product or service. While some ad text works well to generate conversions, other ad text may not. The worst ad text is that which generates clicks but not sales. Subtle changes can cause large swings in the success rate.

The entire campaign must be managed going forward. This involves making decisions about the performance of keywords. Masses of keyword statistics need to be analyzed to ensure that they are all performing at their chosen bid prices. As competitors change their bid prices, this process is constantly evolving.

The great news is that very often the price of clicks in other languages is much lower than in English, so you can expect a better return on click spend in non-English markets. It is, therefore, well worth the effort.

Some basic and low cost steps taken during and after the localization process will ensure that your site remains largely search-engine friendly. If you really want your multilingual website to work for you and pay back the effort, you need to put the same degree of investment into the promotion of the other-language versions as you do with the English/source-language version. For this, you will probably need expert help.

The quickest route to market is normally PPC, but solid SEO should underpin any search marketing initiative since it will provide sustained results for the long term.

Simply translating English PPC campaigns is a route to wasted opportunity or worse. Campaigns must be created by in-country specialists and, ideally, managed centrally for consistent reporting across your global organization. Rewards for doing it right can be significant.

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2006, #79 Volume 17 Issue 3) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,

Ian Harris is cofounder of Search Laboratory.

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