Should I run PPC in foreign languages?

Nicola Winters

Head of International


Although English remains the single most widely used language online it still only accounts for around a quarter of total usage. The growth in online use of languages such as Chinese and Arabic far outstrips that of English. Additionally, many users only speak English as a second language.

A PPC campaign can allow companies to quickly start advertising and building brand awareness in a foreign market, so we’re frequently asked for advice on how to launch into new markets when a site is only available in English.

With this in mind we asked Head of Paid Media, Pete Whitmarsh, if companies should run PPC in foreign languages if their site isn’t translated? Read his advice below…

As a general rule, I would say no. Why would someone want to buy from a non-translated website if they can buy something from a local website instead? Imagine if you searched for a product on Google France and 10 paid ads showed up in French, and then when you clicked on one of the ads landed you on an English website. You’d pretty quickly go back to the search results and find an ad that landed on a French language page. Conversion rate plays a huge part in the success or failure of PPC campaigns – the higher your conversion rate the more you can profitably pay for a click. If your conversion rate is far lower because your site isn’t translated, you can’t pay as much for clicks as local market competitors so you’re priced out of the market.

However, there are exceptions. Maybe your product is so unique that people will only be able to buy it from a non-translated website. Or perhaps your prices are much better than any local retailers. Either way, I would expect conversion rates to be far, far lower than if the site was localized.

Running a foreign language PPC campaign brings its own unique challenges. With a little forethought and planning however, it can help you to increase sales and tap into whole new foreign markets.

If you use native language, how do you translate and vet ad copy and keywords?

If you have fully localized and optimized foreign language websites, you may have your keywords ready to go, but what works in one language might not in another. Colloquialisms, abbreviations, regional variations and other alternative terms may all be more effective.

A literal translation of “car insurance” into French, for example, would be “l’assurance automobile”. A quick run through Google’s keyword tool indicates that this term yields very poor results, with alternative terms such as “assurance auto” or “assurance voiture” being far more successful.


Average monthly searches chart


At Search Laboratory we would use native speakers of the language, train them in PPC and have them carry out their own research into which keywords and ads would be appropriate for their local languages. Translation really is the enemy of PPC campaigns, and any attempts to cut corners by directly translating AdWords accounts into foreign languages will inevitably lead to poor performance and wasted budget.

PPC management is a skill and there would be many considerations that would go into the overall account structure for each language depending on the product range and the nature of the keywords. We would always want something extremely granular as this would help with quality scores and overall performance. But we also need the accounts to be manageable and structured well for reporting.

Are your landing pages all written in English, or do you create microsites in native languages?

Working in the native language is always going to be preferred. The language used on a landing page should always be the same as the corresponding ad. As with keywords, you certainly shouldn’t rely on dictionary or machine translation. Context and culture should be taken into consideration and the tone of language used can be very important.

Ultimately it all comes down to conversion rates, which we’d always expect to be higher with a well-translated and localized landing page.

The only exception would be if you can’t get a high quality localization of the website. If you’re forced to use Google Translate or something that isn’t confident in the language, then you may end up doing more damage than good.

When you launch internationally, do you start with an entire account or one campaign at a time?

Often it can be good to test with a smaller offering on a lower budget for international campaigns. PPC is a great way to test the waters and understand how viable it is for a company to expand overseas. You wouldn’t want to spend too much up-front in order to just test it.

Google is by far the most popular search engine worldwide and it should play a crucial role in most PPC campaigns.

However, in certain markets local competitors rule the roost. In Russia, for example, Yandex has the greatest market share while Baidu is massively important in China.Major global search engines - Yandex, Google, Baidu

What is the biggest challenge when running PPC campaigns in foreign languages?

The main difficulty is directing a larger team of multilingual workers, especially if they’re spread across different locations and time zones. At Search Laboratory we employ a large team of native linguists at our UK headquarters – by having everyone based in the same location it makes it much easier to manage campaigns that span multiple countries and languages. It also allows us to maintain greater control over the quality of work that’s being done for our clients, which in turn allows us to deliver far better results that if we were to outsource.

If you really do want to run foreign language PPC campaigns without a translated website (and again, I’d really advise against this), I’d recommend starting really small and trying different areas with a limited budget. Also, make sure your bids are in line with the anticipated lower conversion rate.

What about countries where English is widely spoken as a 2nd language, like Scandinavia or The Netherlands?

If you assume your customers speak your language well enough to skip the translation step, you’re wrong. In fact, there is an undeniably strong link between in-language content and a consumer’s likelihood of making a purchase.

A study from Harvard Business Review indicated that:

  • 72.1% of consumers spend most or all of their time on websites in their own language.
  • 72.4% of consumers said they would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language.
  • 56.2% of consumers said that the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price.

Keep in mind that while many Europeans are bilingual, they still strongly prefer to buy in their native languages.

Smart companies know that putting all your eggs in one basket is bad for business and so is putting all of your marketing collateral in just one language!