October 18, 2010
When companies decide to launch a multilingual and international search campaign, the most common mistake they make is focusing on language rather than country. There are obvious benefits and challenges to both strategies. Before you commence your program, know exactly what you’re getting into. It’s more difficult to re-engineer your site later, so get it right in the beginning.
Benefits of Targeting by Language
Save on costs such as hosting and top level domains (TLDs)
Because you are not specifically targeting one nation, hosting in target countries is not as crucial, and it should save you some money. Besides hosting, having specific TLDs, re-engineering your site, and hiring a language SEO (define) and content specialists can get very expensive. Targeting by a few languages, especially if they cover a lot of territory and population, is not nearly as expensive.
Multicultural by nature
Language is one of the biggest parts of a culture. Multicultural advertising not only touches those outside of Asia, but internally as well. A multicultural Chinese campaign, targeting the Chinese who live in Japan, for example, can easily be converted to cover almost all of China.
Drawbacks of Targeting by Language
These certainly outweigh the benefits:
Issues with SEO
It’s not impossible to rank when you are just targeting by language, but search algorithms are typically built around the locality of countries they are in, rather than languages. If they weren’t, while searching for dry cleaners in Singapore, you might find your local dry cleaners in Australia.
Dialects and spelling are typically dissimilar across different countries that share the same language. In many cases, phrases and certain names can be taken the wrong way. The well-known story of Chevy Nova is one of those cases, where “No va” in Spanish means “no go” – it affected only some countries that spoke Spanish, not all of them.
Benefits of Targeting by Country
Targeting your campaign via country will likely provide you with more value. Some areas of success include:
Succeed with your SEO
Many SEO best practices exist in each specific country, and following Google’s rules in general works just about everywhere. However, there are huge benefits to be gained with SEO targeting to a country. In-country hosting and having a specific TLD are two of those ranking benefits that could be easily employed. For example, say your site sells baseball equipment in Japan and your domain is yakyu.jp. Setting up hosting in China and having the domain yakyu.cn will continue extending your brand name, while being as Chinese as possible. Alternatively, if you have a generic “.com”, you may benefit from a sub-domain cn.yakyu.com or jp.yakyu.com.
Developing the trust factor
The ‘trust’ factor is by far the most important factor when choosing to target via language or country. Being local and/or coming across as local as possible is going to win more business than being multinational, unless you represent a huge, well-known global brand like eBay (who, by the way, also employs local strategies). When you give the user the sense that you understand them and that you are local to them, it develops trust – and trust is the goal of all marketers and is by far the most important obstacle to jump over in Asia.
Drawbacks of Targeting by Country
If you’re not careful, there can be disadvantages too when targeting a specific country:
According to Google, it is not a penalty for having the same content from one site to the next; however, not getting ranked is the risk. I have seen many .com sites (U.S. versions) rank better than their .co.uk (U.K. versions) counterparts when targeting the U.K. Often the result is less conversions and some British guy laughing at your use of the English language and misspellings. There are ways to get around it, though, like rewriting the duplicated content, specifying language in Google Webmaster Tools, and fixing links.
Did I just say ‘rewriting all of your content’ as one of the previous challenges? Yes, not only rewriting them, but hiring a content specialist from your target country can get expensive. And that’s not talking about other languages either – for example, Japanese Kanji is different from Chinese Kanji, plus you’d need two hosting boxes in each country, independent TLDs, and different SEO strategies around each marketplace. The last thing you would want is your Chinese Kanji content to show up in Japanese Kanji results, your users will certainly have trouble trusting your brand at that point. Starting from the ground up in each country is a lot of work. Do solid research prior to entering your choice markets, and keep in mind: sometimes the differences between two nations and languages are close enough that you don’t have to worry.
Targeting by language in my experience can work well when you want to just provide users with the ability to understand the content on your site in a different language. I know when I travel to Japan or China, I often use either the clean translation tool on a site or alternatively, Google translate so I can at least understand something. It can also be easily employed with the use of a paid search campaign and is a low cost alternative if serious cross-border marketing is “not” the main objective.
Although, if your goal is a successful SEO or SEM strategy, targeting by country does have more benefits then targeting by language. Targeting by country is true localization, competition is reduced and crucial trust is gained. Yes, it will cost you a lot more in the short term, but in the long term, you may just win a market that thinks your brand is a local competitor.
This column, originally published in SES Magazine in July 2010, was updated Sept. 21, 2010 to include examples from Asia Pacific.