Almost two-thirds (64%) of senior decision makers in large UK firms do not consider the internet to be in the top three most important channels for driving overseas trade.

This is despite the fact that the global e-commerce sector, projected to drive $1trn in global internet sales next year, continues to evolve rapidly.

The finding comes from Search Laboratory’s new Web Magnetism report, which interviewed 350 senior decision makers from UK companies with 200 employees or more.

It shows that around 85% of worldwide internet users buy goods and services online. Europe accounts for 35% of global online spending, which reached €550 billion in 2010.

The report asserts that in order to continue to grow profits businesses need to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded to them by global e-commerce.

This is backed up by statistics from our recent report, The Internationalisation of E-commerce: A Best Practice Guide.

Search Laboratory’s survey found that 42% of respondents have witnessed a marked increase in foreign trade as a proportion of their overall business since the recession began, but 51% reported that their volumes of global trade had remained consistent over the same period.

Almost all large companies with international interests surveyed (93%) have been forced to rely heavily on the global markets to maintain or grow their revenues since the markets crashed and the recession began.

As mentioned, just 34% of decision makers said that they rank the internet in their top three most effective channels for attracting foreign customers.

The majority (64%) still consider more traditional marketing channels, like events sponsorship, email marketing and print advertising, as more effective methods.

To help businesses overcome the challenges associated with attracting and converting significant foreign custom, Search Laboratory came up with the following search tips:

SERPs and mother-tongue linguists

An organisation’s presence on SERPs is crucial to its chances of being discovered by global customers. The starting point for this process is identifying the keywords you want to target.

For UK businesses looking to attract custom from overseas, this means finding out foreign language search terms used by overseas target customers.

“Authenticity is crucial here. Native speakers are naturally equipped with a unique range of vocabulary and knowledge of how their local language is spoken.”

Cultural sensitivity

As well as helping out with identifying keywords, mother-tongue linguists can provide information on social norms that may put off foreign visitors without you realising.

This includes things such a language and colloquialisms, but also images that may be fine for a US audience but cause offence in Europe or Asia.

Localise content for PPC

The use of PPC ads is a good way of driving overseas traffic, but don’t make the mistake of using foreign language PPC to link back to an English-language site.

“Regardless of how attractive a company’s proposition is, customers investigating new sites remain very language sensitive, so the vastly reduced conversion rate caused by the language barrier almost always renders them uncompetitive.”

Furthermore, customers will only drop out once they have reached the site meaning you are charged for the click and your investment is wasted.

Test the water with PPC

Utilising a contained ‘paid for’ PPC campaign can help inform the selection of search terms that are used in the natural SEO search strategy for that market.

PPC campaigns can be used as exploratory tactics to test the effectiveness of potential keywords, the most potent of which can subsequently be built into the corresponding SEO campaign.

Enlist technical help

Preparing a website for translation into multiple foreign languages requires considerable technical and linguistic skill.

Get it wrong in the first place and you may have to spend a lot of money rectifying past mistakes, and you certainly won’t achieve a high search ranking.

“If separate partners are being used for translation and web development, it is vital to ensure there is collaborative dialogue between them.”

Case Study: ASOS’s approach to multilingual SEO

In 2011, the fashion company proved its leadership in the online fashion retail sector by achieving over 90% coverage in the UK for its brands in organic search results.

ASOS’s multilingual natural search strategy supports websites targeting the UK, USA, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Australia. 

In April 2012, ASOS appeared in the top ten for 66 out of 72 generic fashion search terms in Google and led all retail sites with 8.2m clickthroughs.

It now attracts 17.5m unique visitors a month and as of 31 March 2012 had 8m registered users and 4.4m active customers from 160 countries.