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Acing SEO on foreign soil: here’s what you need to know


Any consumer business competing on the web must be optimised for search, using tactics such as search engine optimisation (SEO) of its visible content – and, under the hood, an AdWords campaign on Google (or the equivalent for other search engines like Phoenix Nest for Baidu or Bing Ads for Bing and AdWords Editor for Yahoo!).

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This ensures that sites end up at the top (or thereabouts) in organic searches, or at least in a shaded box alongside or above search returns. Not doing it will mean all the money and effort of building a website has been for naught, because nobody will come.

Naturally, search marketing is just as important for websites that spearhead your entry into new markets. But beware – it is more complicated than it sounds.

Getting lost in translation

Language is one of the most obvious differences between countries. In non-English-speaking foreign markets you will therefore need to translate your website content and AdWords.

But it is not simply a matter of translating words. You will also need a localisation service to deal with local terms, cultural sensitivities, language standards, social realities and much more that is unique about the market you are tackling.

This is true whether translation is needed or not. In fact, your website may already serve (English-speaking) foreign markets. And to succeed in the UK, Australia or US, your outdoor cooking equipment will have to be redefined variously as ‘barbecue’, ‘BBQ’, or ‘outdoor grill’.

The reality is that:

  • One language isn’t spoken the same everywhere. Just like English, French, Spanish and Portuguese differ in each region. Research the most appropriate keywords for specific foreign markets.
  • Search marketing targets both humans and search engines, so if certain words get a high traffic ranking but are grammatically incorrect because people type them without diacritical marks or with an “s” instead of a “z”, it might be worth including them in the keywords.
  • Leading search engines vary in each region. While Europe and Africa prefer Google, Baidu is strong in China and Yahoo! in the US and India. Take a closer look at the SEO rules of local search engines.
  • A local URL with top-level domains ( or subdomains ( can help search engines analyse and index sites while giving people a better clue of the content on the website. So, think about localizing your domain, URLs and hosting provider.
  • Search habits vary in different languages, like those that read right to left. In China, Baidu users tend to browse all the search results on offer, rather than pinpointing specific sites via keyword searches. Consider how people shop and buy online and how this would affect keywords.

Other technical complexities
But search marketing localisation has other, more technical complexities, notes Ian Henderson, CTO at Rubric. And depending on the size of the project, these may be compounded many times over.

“To tackle large projects with complex workflows between writers, translators, editors, proof readers and Web content managers, Language Service Providers need software development capabilities – to preserve formatting integrity between the client’s content management system and the translation tool, and to comply with the technical parameters of the Google AdWords platform.”

Common mistakes businesses make with SEO localisation are:

1. Underestimating the complexity of managing a content translation process
It sound simple enough: farm out the material that needs to be adapted to different translators, proof the returned copy, and swap it out with the old keywords. But this siloed method doesn’t allow multi-step feedback between specialists, causing out-of-context, reactive translations, process mishaps and a myriad other flaws of unmanaged large content projects.

2. Dealing with technical challenges of search marketing
Instead of working from an Excel format to localise keywords, these should be reviewed in AdEditor, Google’s tool for designing AdWords. By reviewing and translating AdWords within their proper live search context, it’s easier to propose new Adwords. But, exporting, translating and reimporting the content files without ‘breaking’ formatting of the live keywords takes considerable process innovation, automation and project management.

3. Building up a non-core ad hoc capability
Doing search marketing localization in-house creates extraordinary resource demands on the business. An outsourced partner can streamline the process, for instance by bringing in an engineer to test that translations complied with the technical parameters of Google AdWords. This automated quality check cuts out much to-and-froing, allowing translators to focus on exceptions (formatting problems). Outsourcing can mean the difference between a project that’s completed in a few weeks rather than several months.

Getting foreign-market search optimisation right is broadly a challenge of localisation, to accommodate differences between countries. It requires roping in a new breed of specialist into one’s search marketing efforts, namely language services providers (LSPs), with service offerings including localisation.

A good provider can own the process, managing the entire AdWords translation process (in addition to the original website copy translation – with SEO in mind, of course). By slotting in seamlessly with the existing SEO process, a good partner can save businesses a lot of worry while ensuring website enquiries from the outset.

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