Multilingual SEO: Search Marketing in Any Language

Jan 27, 2009 9:49 PM  By

How would someone in another country think about your company’s offerings, where they fit in their culture, and how they refer to them?

My last article covered these core questions for companies undertaking multilingual search engine optimization (MSEO), whether they do it themselves or turn to specialists such as Global Vibration, Oban Multilingual, or Search Laboratory. Now let’s review the elements that make up the methodologies or technology that underpin successful MSEO.

First off, think about what you’re doing with search engine optimization in English. Your focus is to improve your search engine ranking. You want to make sure that your site appears at the top of the list whenever anyone searches for something related to your business or product offering.

You systematically identify the keywords that Google or Yahoo! will find for a given topic and ensure that they show up somewhere searchable on your Website. You may also pay for SEO by buying keywords in a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign.

For example, if you sell running shoes or all-weather running jackets, keywords like “running shoes,” “waterproof running jackets,” and “running gear” would be at the top of your list.

Who should worry about SEO? Anyone who works with your Website or drives prospects there should have intimate knowledge of the keywords that you target. Your Website architect, designer, and manager need to incorporate your keywords where appropriate. The content authors who write the Web content must incorporate keywords in appropriate places on your site.

Public relations people, whether they’re involved in the Web directly or writing for other communication channels, have to include the keywords in the press releases or advertisements that drive people to the site. SEO touches every element of a multichannel marketing program, so anyone who produces anything searchable should use them systematically.

Sooner or later, you decide to choose market your goods or services in Canada, New Zealand, or the U.K. Will your SEO keywords attract the interest of residents of those countries and the search engines they use to look for them?

While mass media and travel have narrowed the gap, Oscar Wilde’s 1887 observation that “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language” still should give pause to any cross-border marketer. Besides language, differences in holidays (Boxing Day), cultural icons (Guy Fawkes), food (bubble and squeak), and a host of other details make trips to England worthwhile – and U.K.-focused SEO a necessity.

To succeed in optimizing your search engine rankings for other Anglophone markets, you’ll have to repeat your home-market exercise of identifying, incorporating, and managing keywords for those English dialects. Your own local staff or an SEO specialist can help you mediate the vagaries of not-quite-global English. Simple translation won’t suffice, not for other English-speaking markets and especially not for countries where they speak other languages.

But the core requirement for SEO never change, regardless of language or market. You still want to appear at the top of a search engine’s ranking. You either find the right keywords and place them wherever they’re likely to be found on your Website or you buy placements through market-specific PPC programs. Meanwhile, the people who populate your Website with content have to know what they’re doing.

If your global Website architecture depends on a centralized server hosted outside Tampa, that increases the MSEO burden on the team in Florida that arranges for translation and other content localization. I call this quite natural tendency to simply translate English keywords into other languages “search-scraping.” It’s a quick and expedient way to get your Website visible to language-specific search engines. But you’re likely to miss out on the SEO opportunities in other languages.

Avoid the perils of search-scraping by approaching each country as a discrete market with unique behaviors. Here are the very basic of what you need to do for multilingual SEO while leveraging the work you’ve already done in English.

1. Start from a solid base in English. If you have a two or three keywords or phrases per English page, place them in the keywords metatag for your site. Ian Harris of Search Laboratory recommends that, “When you translate the site, research the equivalents in each language based on search volume, competitiveness, and strategic importance. If your company uses terminology management technology, flag these foreign terms as crucial to your SEO work.”

Make sure that your translation agency knows about these keywords in your terminology database and uses them systematically and correctly rather than performing ad hoc translation.

2. Identify keywords for your specific markets. Beyond the words that you translated and optimized for local markets, which other keywords make the most sense for a given country? If you have marketing staff on the ground in another market, work with them to identify appropriate keywords and get them into your content systems.

Avoid simple translation. Figure out the canonical message that you want to get across – for example, “Buy my sportswear” – and create all permutations in the target language rather than translate them from the English. This approach will make sure that translators with local knowledge incorporate colloquialisms, idioms, and regionalisms that will be searched for in those markets.

3. Know where your prospects search. Once you incorporate keywords in your site, make sure that market-specific search engines can find them. You could work your way through the Search Engine Colossus or rely on SEO specialists to find, optimize, expose, publicize, map, and manage the engines that matter most in a market.

4. Test and measure results. If you use MSEO consultants, make sure they have local knowledge and ability to test the appropriateness of keywords that ware specific to their culture, behaviors, and world view. SEO agencies like Oban maintain offices in 26 countries where they can draw on local knowledge, literature, and focus groups. Technology-focused SEO specialists like Search Laboratories use statistical methods to identify, test, and manage keyword lists.

5. Actively manage MSEO. Think of search engine optimization as a process rather than an event. Each and every new product launch and competitor’s announcement should cause you or your MSEO partner to review keywords, track them, create new ones, and otherwise ensure that the site gets continual optimization. Remember that your focus is getting your site found in other languages, and then making sure it continues to get found.

SEO will increasingly become a function within a Web team or a marketing department. But given the number of countries and languages that a company might target with localized Websites, multilingual SEO will likely remain an outsourced operation for some time to come.

Don DePalma is founder/chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory, and author of “Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.”