Cultural Customization: Localization and Keywords for International Markets

The case for SEO is quite a simple one really. If a business ranks highly on Google for its industry's most popular key search terms, then they are far more likely to succeed than if they have a poor ranking. This is reflected in research conducted by the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA) which found that two-thirds of marketers planned to increase their SEO resources in 2009.

But we don't want to preach to the converted here. Most of you will already be aware of the power that SEO holds in terms of targeting domestic markets, which is why you're here reading this.

However, many small businesses could be missing a trick by limiting their SEO scope to domestic shores - the world is a big place and 75% of the earth's population speaks no English at all. Furthermore, whilst English may well be the most widely spoken 'second language' across the globe, people simply prefer to do business in their own tongue.

In Europe, there are over 200 indigenous languages, 23 of which are spoken in the 27 European Union (EU) member states (some of the languages are spoken in more than one country, hence the disparity).

Language Native Speakers Total Speakers
English 13% 51%
German 18% 32%
French 12% 26%
Italian 13% 16%
Spanish 9% 15%

Figure 2: Top five European Languages

English is spoken to some degree by over half the population of the European Union. But from a native-speaking point of view, German has plurality with almost 20% of the EU population speaking it as a mother tongue, followed by English and Italian each with 13% and French with 12%.

Which languages you work in naturally depends on which markets you intend to target, a decision based on the nature of your business and where you feel there is a gap in the market which your business can exploit. But consider that if your business was targeting a sector in the South American market, having your website available in Spanish opens your business up to a potential 350 million native speakers around the world; expanding further into the burgeoning Brazilian economy and a Portuguese website opens up an extra 200 million speakers.

Of course, it also pays to be wary of the linguistic differences that exist between, say, the Spanish in Spain and the Spanish in many Latin American countries. For example, the word carro in Spain is a cart that you push or pull to transport things, whereas in Latin America it is an actual car that you can drive around in. A car in Spain is a coche, whereas a coche in Latin America is a baby stroller.

Similarly, dejeuner is 'lunch' in France, but 'breakfast' in French-speaking Switzerland and Belgium. And whilst France often import Anglicisms directly into their language, French-speaking Canada tend to translate the English terms directly: e.g. 'Weekend' is le weekend in France, but fin de semaine in Canada (literally: 'end of the week).

There are many dialectal differences within languages that help to highlight the importance of adopting a fully localized marketing strategy. And the only way of ensuring your message is properly localized, is to use a professionally qualified translator who is native to the target country. Furthermore, the linguist should ideally live in the country too, as language is constantly evolving and they must be up-to-date on the latest local lingo.

So how does all this fit in with SEO, the issue you're all here to read about? Well, keywords are the cornerstone of any SEO campaign...domestic and international. However, it's important that you DON'T translate your keywords directly from English...they too should be localized.

The correct dictionary translation of a keyword or phrase may NOT be what people use to search for the desired product or service locally, they may use abbreviations, colloquialisms or a different word that means the same thing.

To help illustrate this point, consider this scenario. A US car insurance company that has dedicated a considerable amount of resources to ensure it ranks highly on for the search term 'car insurance' decides it wants to launch a campaign to target French markets.

A literal and not-incorrect translation of 'car insurance' into French would be 'l'assurance automobile'. However, Google's keyword tool indicates that this term yields very few results. A little research into the key search terms actually used in French search engines reveal that people tend to use variations of this term, such as 'assurance auto' or 'assurance voiture'.

By taking just a few minutes to research the keywords that consumers actively use to search for car insurance abroad, a major problem can be averted.

Similarly, in some markets it won't be necessary to translate some of the key search terms at all. In Germany, for example, English terminology is often used, especially with technical and web-related subjects. So a website design company that ranks highly in the US for the term 'web design' would be fine to incorporate the English phrase into its German-language website.

So in the same way as you identify your industry's highest ranking keywords for the English market, such as via Google's free keyword finder, you have to research the keywords for each target country, to ensure your foreign language website is properly optimized.

Once you have your keywords identified for each country, you can then incorporate these into a professionally translated website. It's important that native speakers are used to translate your website as it must exude professionalism in all your target markets.

English may still be the dominant language in terms of content on the Web, but the majority of the world's internet users' first language isn't English. And this disparity creates a rather lucrative opportunity for those seeking to enter new markets: the competition for key search terms is much less on the non-English language internet, therefore it's possible to achieve high search engine rankings far easier than in English.

The importance of localizing your website for the target market can't be over-emphasized as there is a myriad of cultural and linguistic complexities that must be addressed - this applies to your international SEO initiatives too.

December 10, 2009

Christian Arno

About the Author

Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translation company and localization specialists Lingo24.

Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over a hundred employees spanning four continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over thirty million words for businesses in every industry sector and their turnover in 2009 was $6m USD.

December 10, 2009

In international markets, having multi language websites is the only way to maximise your success. In the internet, english is the most used language and worldwidely people understand it the most. I am not a native english speaker, but still when I am searching I normally start to search the information in english. Reason for this is that I get more options to choose from than just searching with my native tongue. Thanks for the post :) Posted by: Blogidy

December 10, 2009

Oh Man... localization is a discipline very few understand. This is a really good first step! Local colloquialisms and language differences can impact local search, so it is necessary to gain at least some language and cultural experience to really make this work. Great Post!!! Thanks! MAS Posted by: Denver SEO

December 11, 2009

I was dealing recently with the subject. Some business owners think that having website in English will do - there is nothing further from the truth. Website localisation can give a company far more clients than what they have now. Great post on the topic! Posted by: Damian Doman

December 15, 2009

Small Business owners are largely forgotten. Thats why I only focus on them. I have experience several members of my family file bankruptcy due to small business failures. I also I suffered through 2 destroyed businesses due to failure however, in my failings I have learned some of the secrets to success. (Who can say they know it all?) What I like about small business owners is that they are not afraid to take huge risks and lay it all on the line. But, I agree they do need a lot of help with their marketing. I think having them go the social media and email route is not only the least expensive but its also the most effective. Thanks for the stats! Posted by: somaie