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The experts, it turns out, were right. The internet continues to spread across the world with incredible fervour. Nowadays, internet access can be found in even the most remote corners of the world.

Deep in the Philippines lies the tropical island of Boracay, which until only recently relied on a single power generator for the entire island. Today however, high speed wireless internet can be accessed from just about any bar, restaurant, hotel or café on the island.

Walking along the beach, one notices not just the tourists logging on, but many of the local Filipinos, anxious to see who’s written on their Facebook wall, and browsing to see what they can purchase from a store not otherwise accessible to them.

It wasn’t until recently that Filipinos trusted online shopping. With high levels of corruption in the country, they were concerned about the security of online transactions. However, with recent changes to the online system in the country, increasing numbers are joining the rest of the world, and spending their money on the internet.

This is just one example of the extent to which the internet has spread its modern tentacles across the globe.

People living in remote corners of Sweden are turning to the internet for their fashion fix. They’ve found online shopping to be a convenient alternative to taking a long and arduous shopping trip to Stockholm.

The Swedish Post recently reported that in 2008, nearly 30% of Swedes were shopping online, and that number is likely to rise dramatically over the next few years.

What does all this mean for online businesses?

It means that having an English-only website is no longer sufficient. For those under the illusion that their potential customers are all surfing the web in English, it is time to realize that the language of the web is multilingual.

People prefer to search and interact online in their own language: it’s natural and comfortable. And the more relaxed a potential customer is when they’re browsing an online store, the more likely they will make a purchase. That is, of course, if they even find your site in the first place.

International online visibility is becoming a major priority for online businesses. From big names like Universal Music Group, to the smaller niche e-stores realising their massive potential for sales in relatively untapped markets with newly acquired online access, businesses are cashing in on their ability to be seen online.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is not a new thing. But international SEO is its newest evolution, and it’s causing a major stir in the online world.

By having experts write new content in their target market’s native language, building key links, and setting up valuable, culturally-appropriate pay-per-click campaigns, businesses are now able to tap into markets they never before dreamed possible.

The trick is understanding that every culture searches differently. Learning how those cultures search is a complex process, but the knowledge is invaluable. For example, knowing that French people tend to misspell the keyword “holiday” as “holliday” can be a key factor for an online travel agency’s pay-per-click campaign.

Armed with this kind of insider knowledge, they have a budget-friendly SEO campaign structured that will give them high rankings for this misspelled keyword, and thus target high numbers of French tourists that other agencies will likely miss.

In fact, French culture responds very well to text on the web that is written specifically for them rather than a translated version. Through testing we at Oban have seen up to a 400 percent difference in conversion rates when web text specifically highlights aspects of French life and culture as opposed to merely offering a straight translation.

German web culture has led to Germans searching the web in three distinct ways. They will use German key-phrases, a mixture between German and English and often also use misspellings of English. While working with our client Johnson & Johnson, we discovered that Germans often use the phrase 'Kinder Diaper' to search, combining a German phrase with a US English phrase.

Russian searchers prefer to search in Cyrillic, but they often write the phrase phonetically based on English phrases. An example would be the term ‘business travel’. We’ve found that many Russians search for this term in Cyrillic while using the English phonemes.

And of course, though Google is popular in many parts of the world, it is not the search engine of choice in many valuable markets. Many countries prefer to use native search engines for their online needs, which are often able to process the complexities of the language more effectively than Google. Indeed, in two of the world’s rising stars in the online shopping world, China and Russia, native search engines Baidu and Yandex dominate the market in a very big way.

Businesses should, therefore, be looking not just to rank well on Google, but on a multitude of international search engines. And the best part is, there is often less competition on these lesser-known portals, making international SEO a more budget-friendly process.

Another focus should be on the ease for customers to find what they’re looking for on your site: usability. It should be kept in mind that different cultures often prefer different site layouts and design. For example, Chinese people tend to have a preference for flashy, busy sites, whereas British people tend to like simpler, lower-key versions.

A great way to discover suitable qualities according to your target audience is through multivariate testing. Through this process, different variations to a website can be tested in a live environment. In the not too distant future, reactions to these variations will be traceable according to region.

Sites with more culturally-appropriate content will often achieve higher conversion rates (the customer will be more likely to perform the action you want them to, like make a purchase).

The results of international SEO, if done properly, can be staggering. One online retailer of car parts developed dedicated sites in a number of European markets, using international SEO as their backbone. The Italian site saw over 1,500 percent growth in organic traffic over a four month period, post optimisation.

International SEO is not for everyone – some businesses don’t need to look abroad since they have all the business they need locally. However, with the world in the slow process of recovering from a terrible economic crisis, many enterprising marketers and managers are realising that spreading themselves into a variety of markets is a much more economically-sound option than putting all their eggs in one basket.

The online world has now spread into some of the most remote corners of the world, from the Philippines to rural Sweden – those who expand with it will find opportunities they hadn’t before thought possible.

Greig will be delivering Econsultancy’s International SEO training workshop on 11th June in London. Book your place now and discover how to harness the international digital marketplace for your business.

Greig Holbrook

Published 2 June, 2009 by Greig Holbrook

Greig Holbrook is director of Oban Multilingual and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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