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SEO In Other Languages: Are You Getting It Right?

Once you start to make a success of an online business, there are various interesting ways to branch out, and a selection of strategies to support those efforts with different SEO tactics. For example, you can try to capitalise on the increasing trend towards browsing on mobile devices by being well-prepared for Google’s expected evolution towards “mobile first” indexing.

Another option widely favoured by many businesses is to move beyond providing content in only one language. Making your site multilingual, with a mixture of technical expertise, translation services and an organised approach to foreign-language SEO, can mean opening up your business to a whole new world of people, brand exposure, and – ultimately – sales.

There are some impressive statistics that prove just how worthwhile it is to move into foreign-speaking markets. First off, it’s worth realising that despite English being “the most common studied language in the world,” (according to an article of the Washington Post from 2015), it’s only actually the third most spoken (after Chinese and Spanish) and less than 6% of the world’s population actually speak it natively.

Furthermore, there are studies that show people respond far better to marketing messages when they are in their native language. The simple fact is that sales are easier to close when you’re talking to prospective customers in their preferred tongue.

So, with it hard to dispute that going “multi language” is well worthwhile, what do companies need to think about in terms of SEO? 

SEO Foreign Language 1

Choosing your target languages

As an initial phase of rolling out multilingual support for a website, it’s well worthwhile to focus on a single foreign language initially. This makes the project more straightforward to focus on and helps iron out all the technical issues that can occur when a site first begins to offer multi language support.

When it comes to choosing what the first language(s) should be, Google Analytics is your best friend. By looking at the country demographics of people visiting your site, you can quickly determine where you may have an untapped market of customers who’d really like it if you started communicating in their language. Sometimes, for commercial reasons, it’s not quite as simple a decision as picking the country with the most “foreign language” traffic, but that will depend on the specifics of your business.

The role of SEO

With language(s) chosen, one might wonder if it’s simply a case of firing up Google Translate and beginning to create a list of translated keywords?

While this may go some way towards kicking off the SEO efforts, it’s unlikely that machine translation like this will prove particularly successful. Moz offers up some interesting examples of where literal translations don’t reflect what real people type into search engines. There are some interesting quirks where it’s commonplace for foreign language speakers to still mix in English words, such as when Italians look for cheap flights by typing “voli low cost” rather than “voli economici,” or “voli a basso costo.

In a way, therefore it’s necessary to go right back to the drawing board with keyword research, optimising around what people actually look for, rather than mere translations of the keywords that already work in in the existing language.

What this all comes down to is a fundamental difference between basic translation and proper localisation. It’s the latter that companies should aim for when undertaking a foreign language website project. This means using native language translators for content, and potentially getting them involved to help with keyword research and other SEO tasks too.

Another key way a native speaker (or ideally a localisation expert) will help is in ensuring that you don’t miss those linguistic quirks that so many languages have. For example, there are significant differences between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, and between the Spanish spoken in Spain and in Latin America. (It’s probably reasonable to add, at the point, that there are no shortage of similar differences between UK and American English!)

Avoiding unnecessary problems 

The last thing you want to do when undertaking a project of this nature is to introduce problems for your website rather than bring more traffic to it.

One thing to be aware of is potential duplicate content issues that can arise because of having foreign language versions of your site. Even direct translations of an English site should be OK in Google’s eyes, however duplication between European and Canadian French, for example, could create an issue. Ideally, with full localisation rather than basic translation you should avoid these issues anyway. However, as always it’s worth ensuring you stick rigidly to Google’s pronouncements and don’t take any unnecessary risks.

It’s worth pointing out that proper localisation can have big benefits in terms of customer perception anyway. Some large companies produce completely unique marketing materials for different territories that tap into cultural quirks and capitalise on local knowledge. While smaller companies are unlikely to have the budget for this, working in a certain level of cultural sensitivity is well worthwhile and unlikely to go unnoticed by the target audience.

Pleasing side-effects

Providing you get the technical side of a multi-language roll-out right, and that you optimize your site for what people abroad actually search for rather than translated phrases, good results should be around the corner once the additional language version(s) of the site have time to index and rank.

Once the updated site is live, you could see some pleasing additional outcomes, such as:

  • Link building efforts should be made easier in two ways. Firstly, other sites may feel more inclined to link organically, and secondly, there’s now a whole new territory’s worth of sites to approach, assuming this is something you do.
  • There should be a similar increase in social media opportunities, once people have access to content that they can share in their native language.

Once one language is tested successfully, branching out into more is exponentially easier, as you’ll already have ironed out the technical glitches, and built the additional steps into your SEO processes. Then, it should be a simple equation: more languages = more customers!

Louise Taylor manages all the content for Tomedes – a translation company. A writer with a keen interest in languages, she has varying abilities in Spanish, French, German and Latin. She runs the Tomedes translation blog and the company’s Business translation center.

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