Looking for ‘Love’ (and Other Search Terms) in All the Wrong Languages

Earlier this month, I received a message written in the somewhat stilted language of a Nigerian phishing operation: “I would like to speak with the person in charge of your international clientele. Who is my contact? Who should I speak to??”

Yes, two question marks, indicating urgency (or maybe just a stuck key on his keyboard).

I expected an appeal to deposit a cashier’s check and keep half of it for myself. But I was wrong. My unknown correspondent went on to tell me that “I have noticed that your website cannot be found on foreign search engines.”

He tested it on a variety of search sites, including “Hispanic search engines, German search engines, Asian search engines, etc.” He was pretty thorough, I guess, in determining that “Common Sense Advisory” could not be found except by people querying for it in English.

For a company like mine dealing with business globalization issues, this must be either a serious error on our part or a potential black eye relative to our services in helping companies put their best foot forward on the global stage.

What he was trying to sell me, as he went on to write, was his company’s service in developing an international Web presence without having to translate our website. In other words, he could help with multilingual search engine optimization – call it MSEO – and attract more international visitors (and Americans who don’t speak English) to my Website. All this, mind you, without going to the bother and expense of translation and localization.

Consider some oft-cited statistics such as 80% of all online transactions begin on the Web and that 99% of foreigners use search engines built around their languages to look for, not surprisingly, words in their own language. SEO around English will leave a lot of these people on the outside, never finding your Website or what you offer. There could be a lot of value to my importunate correspondent’s MSEO offer, assuming that you can provide some value to the people who search in other languages for your goods or services.

Let’s review the options for moving from optimizing your Website for American English to making a bigger splash in world markets. You have a few options – ignoring the opportunity, translating your English-language SEO terms, or creating market-specific terms.

On the “ignore” side of the ledger, you do what I did and focus only on your home-market SEO. This was a conscious decision. Our Website claims that Common Sense Advisory is “unapologetically” English-focused when it comes to what we publish. It hurts my pride to publish only in English, especially because among me and my colleagues, we can converse in a bunch of languages.

But we cannot scale that capability to the level of research and consulting to credibly compete outside the North Atlantic region. We may not have a multilingual Website, but we are pragmatic.

The second option is to take all of your English-language keywords and translate them into the languages of your target markets. From the conversations that I’ve had with clients and people at conferences, this approach seems to be the default.

Under the banner of “search engine marketing,” companies identify the keywords by which they’d like to be found. They may turn to sites like KeywordDiscovery or Wordtracker to vet the words, consciously use them on their Websites and in meta tags, and then review their pay-per-click strategy to determine how much they want to pay for being listed first whenever someone searches for a term.

We’ve heard tales of companies compiling lists of thousands of words for their business. These are typically firms that manufacture a wide variety of products, so they can make the case for having a lot of words associated with their products and how people think about them.

That’s where the translation issue comes up. Do people who don’t speak English think about products in the same way? There are certainly direct translations for physical objects like an Eames chair, a sports car, and a rotary sander.

But some things may not be sold or used in a given country – think Lufthansa running a promotion for flights from Boston to Frankfurt to passengers in a regional airport in northern Germany or, to take an extreme case, Weight Watchers pitching its wares to a country chronically cursed with famine.

Translating every keyword obviously doesn’t make sense. This reality brings up the third option – what I classify as “transcreation” rather than translation. For their MSEO projects, companies first translate keywords for objects and concepts that easily cross borders; for example, look at words that are specific to your industry. For everything else, you’ll have to get into someone else’s skin.

How would someone in another country think about your offerings? Where do they fit in their cosmology of objects? How would they refer to them? And while translating thousands of keywords into a dozen languages won’t break the bank, it does introduce the headache of managing this multidimensional repository of terms that define your business.

For this exercise, most companies will start with colleagues in target countries, focus groups, the language service providers they use to translate their website, or specialist firms such as MSEO, Oban Multilingual, or Search Laboratory. These are just a few of the companies that offer a range of methodologies or technology-based solutions to MSEO. I’ll look at how they do it in a future column.

Those are the major choices: Translate or transcreate your way to better global searchability. But while the companies that I mentioned can do a great job of getting you found, the big question that remains is “what will they do once they get to your Website?”

Don DePalma is the founder/chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory.