Speaking your customer’s language: translation and SEO

Search Labs


Getting the “language of your business” right is vital not only for search engine rankings and paid search quality scores. It is also the key to gaining the visibility and establishing the trust needed to be able to compete with local businesses, who are already at an advantage due to being native speakers.

There is mounting evidence that customers and search engines are expecting more localization and user-friendly sites:

  • 56% of consumers say the ability to access product info in their native language is a more important purchasing factor than pricing (Smartling: “The State of Multilingual Marketing”)
  • 9 out of 10 internet users always choose to navigate to websites in their native language when presented with multiple language options. (European Commission: “User Language Preferences Online”)
  • For some markets, an English-only website can lead to a swift end to your global expansion plans: according to Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, English landing pages have an 85% drop-off rate.

This article considers the importance of translation and SEO, and provides advice on how to do it well.

Translation and SEO

Translation is needed as a first step of localization, although translation alone will not ensure your global success online. Native speakers have a unique range of vocabulary and knowledge of how their local language is spoken in a way that non-native translators do not. It is therefore critical to engage mother-tongue linguists to creatively and effectively explore the full variety of potential search terms that could yield results in a search or digital marketing campaign.

Today’s machine translation tools (e.g. Google Translate) are simply not up to the challenge of optimizing your website for new markets. Non-native speaking human translators also fail to capture important local phrases which are key to your success, due to how they have been trained to translate from one language to another. Even someone who is bilingual doesn’t necessarily have the skill set required to ensure that the translated campaign will be optimized when translated into their second language.

A translation agency can translate your web pages into the required language, but they alone cannot do the job of making it market and search engine friendly.

Our experience is that you will gain more from your translated website if you also engage a digital marketing agency with international know-how and native linguists to work alongside your translation agency. This will ensure that your newly translated website is also optimized effectively for search.

Translating your site and then optimizing it at a later date can lead to large sections of the website having to be re-written. Furthermore, relying solely on translation with no technical SEO guidance may result in future updates becoming increasingly expensive and complex because the legacy structure has made it impossible to apply cost saving tools and techniques.

This process of translation agency and digital agency working side-by-side to gain the most
efficient end result can work as follows:


SEO glossaries should be constructed by digitally trained native linguists to ensure that before translation starts the translators are armed with the most appropriate search terms for the target language, and that these terms are automatically suggested each time a keyword appears in the source text.

Translation memory software will help to ensure that, for the initial translation:

  1. Translation is consistent across the site.
  2. Unnecessary costs are avoided.
  3. Changes to any pages in future, such as might be needed when target search terms are updated, do not require a complete re-translation.

Content is then reviewed for a) usability and b) SEO. This is critical to ensure the page will a) convert well and b) rank well in the target market. Any SEO and usability amendments must be reincorporated into the translation memory to ensure consistency across the site and to avoid the amendments being undone next time the page is changed.

Nevertheless, the majority of companies still use a stand-alone translation agency to create and manage the entirety of their international digital campaigns without considering optimization of key terms for the market.

Translation and technical SEO translation are different activities that require different training and skill sets.

Example: a car rental company expands into France

A US car rental company is expanding into France car rentaland is starting to explore French search terms in order to inform its search marketing strategy. Back in the US, the company has already identified the following terms that its customers use in search engines in order to find companies offering this service:

“Car hire”

“Vehicle rental”

“Automobile lease”

“Charter motor”

Going a step further, these pairs of words can be interchanged to create sixteen possible combinations of these search terms which could all be entered into a search engine in order to retrieve similar SERPs: ‘‘vehicle hire’, ‘automobile rental’, ‘car lease’ etc.

In this case, it is likely that both human and automated translators would reduce these sixteen possible combinations down to one or two phrases – “location de voiture”, for example. Both are trained to find the ‘best match’ between words and phrases through which they can transport meaning from one language to another.

This is a reductive approach to translation and is actually the opposite of what our car hire company requires for successful French SEO. To ensure its website appears on the SERPs of as many French-language consumers as possible, the company needs to identify the highest possible number of alternative search terms, not only those that are directly translated from the English.

Find out next week why localization doesn’t end with translating your website – localization also covers a broad range of other issues that are integral to a successful international digital marketing campaign.