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6 Tips for SEM Localization

This article was written by Michael Kriz, Acclaro's Founder and President. It was originally published in the marketing publication iMedia Connection in June 2010.

By Michael Kriz, Acclaro Inc.

Article Highlights:

  • Start by researching the local competition to know more about the demand for your offering
  • Then do some preliminary research around key search terms in that market
  • Your original web marketing plan should be revisited when localizing your site and SEM efforts

English is, without doubt, the language of global commerce and the lingua franca of the internet. But while English is the most common language on the web, about 75 percent of web users are in countries where English is not the native language. They are writing, speaking, and — most importantly for marketers - searching for products and services in their mother tongue.

When taking your business into global markets, it's important to "speak" to your new target consumers in their own language, considering their cultural and linguistic preferences and communicating with them as carefully as you would with someone in your home market. In this case, going global really means going local. Hence the term "localization," which adapts a product, document, or website linguistically, technically, and culturally to the target market where it will be used and sold.

Expanding your business into new language markets does not have to mean crossing country borders. Within the U.S., there are a number of communities where other languages (e.g., Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese) are more predominant, so a localized campaign will help you capture those domestic multicultural consumers.

Many of you have already taken the first step, providing multiple language versions of your website. But you can't just stop there. When launching a website in English, do you just flip the switch and expect hordes of visitors? Hopefully, the answer is no. You invest in natural and paid search marketing to drive traffic and conversions. Well, guess what? The same is true for translated websites.

To help you through the process, here are 6 tips for SEM localization:

  1. Do your homework. Examine your product or service offerings as they relate to search in that specific country or target market; make sure there is room for you to grab significant market share. One way to do this is to research the local competition to know more about the demand for your offering. Then do some preliminary research around key search terms in that market, using the free keyword identification tools provided by Yahoo and Google. This will not only help you get a rough idea of the search phrases used in that market, but bid prices will provide a general sense of the competition and the market's saturation level.
  2. "Think SEO" when you translate your website. If you've followed best practices when creating the original website, you had SEO on the brain every step of the way. Don't stop! First, for each target language, consider using a local domain, IP address, and hosting provider — it's one of the best ways to rank higher in organic search results. There are other components to think about as well: translation of URLs, metatags (keywords and descriptions), title tags, alt tags (for images) and, in some case, file names. Keep a checklist and run through each of these at the beginning of the process, discussing their importance with your website translation service provider. And remember, it's all going to save you money: Early integration in this first phase equals fewer costs from post-launch optimization and content updates in the end.
  3. Dig up your marketing plan. Remember all that hard work you put into your initial web marketing plan? The research and presentation of your target customer demographics, primary competitors, product or service information, branding, and editorial style guide? What about your overall business goals? All of this can and should be re-used when you localize your website and search engine marketing efforts. Particularly when localizing your PPC campaign, your translation vendor is going to use this information to try to emulate the same process that you went through when creating the original. (This is a marketing principle called transcreation. For more information, see A Five-Step Guide to Take Your Campaign Global.)
  4. Empower your translators. Your translation team should be working from the creative guidelines you or your language partner have prepared, and not taking the easy way out by doing direct translations. With that style guide in hand, they can then use their knowledge of the target market and language to create new ad text, keywords, and landing page copy that will have the deepest impact for that culture and region. Your translation partner may make larger recommendations, too, such as removing the credit card form from all European landing pages, since consumers there are less accustomed to buying items online. 
  5. Consider going all the way. Look at some of the tactics you are implementing for your English-language site. Are you doing link-building and submitting to site directories? Participating on social networks? Do you have a blog? Decide if your SEO localization efforts are going to be limited to site architecture and translation or if you're interested in getting results from supplementary initiatives, namely content development and social media. For all of these, though, localization is key. You'll have to find out which social networks, local language article sites, and major site directories are the most popular. For example, Startpagina.nl is a common start point for many searches from users in Holland. In Brazil, your customers are more likely to be spending time on Orkut. (Why? In part because "Orkut" is easier to pronounce than "Facebook" in Portuguese. It also helps that the color scheme is the same as the Brazilian national soccer team's jerseys.)
  6. Don't compare apples to spaceships. When analyzing your SEO and PPC results, resist the urge to compare them to those of your home campaigns. Internet use and behavior varies greatly by country and culture. For example, in Japan users are more likely to access the web with a mobile device, so your web analytics might reflect that (e.g., less time spent on the site, higher abandonment rates). Also consider differences in work hours, work weeks, and seasons; summer vacation in Buenos Aires is the middle of winter in the U.S. (You might also consider this for optimal ad scheduling.)

It's best to analyze your results based on each location, region, and geography — and across various search engines and languages. If you consolidate all of the data, you can then identify patterns unique to each market and tweak your campaigns accordingly.

So, as tempting as it may be to just take a deep breath (or a deep vacation) when you've completed your website translation project, it may really be worth it to take those extra steps to localize your SEM campaign. The potential benefits are substantial: a boost in traffic volume, a better web experience for your visitors, a higher conversion rate, and increased revenue from international sales.


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