Greig Holbrook

explains what multilingual SEO is and why you should use it.

International (or multilingual) SEO involves improving the volume and quality of international traffic to websites from culturally-specific search engines.

English-only websites are a thing of the past. They overlook 95% of the potential market (since only 5% of the world’s population speaks English).

Online shoppers worldwide are increasingly relying on search engines to help them locate their product or service of choice.

While a product or service may be in demand in a variety of cultures, the way these cultures search for that product or service is extremely unique.

In other words, what captures one culture’s attention can be off-putting to another.

By optimising a website according to unique cultural search habits, businesses can specifically target particular cultures, and make their products or services visible in regions where there are often massive untapped markets.

Why you should care

Last year saw 147.1m Chinese participate in e-commerce (source: MasterCard Worldwide), a higher number than the total population of all but the world’s eight most populous countries.

In less than two years, this number is projected to triple.

Across the ocean, Brazil is also seeing incredibly strong e-commerce growth.

Online spending there is predicted to grow by one-third in 2008. Brazil’s rapidly growing population of online buyers are among the most active retail e-commerce users in the world (source: e-Marketer).

At home in Europe, Scandinavia’s retail e-commerce sales for 2008 are predicted to total £10.65bn (source: Forrester Research).

Online buyer penetration rates in Denmark, Finland and Sweden were among the highest in Europe in the second quarter of last year, averaging 22% higher than the EU as a whole (source: Eurostat).

Add this onto the current credit crunching climate that is particularly pronounced in the UK and US, and it is easy to see why many UK companies are looking outside of our English borders for relatively untapped markets.

The trick is how to reach those markets.

Think about it as a simple mathematical problem. Nearly three-quarters of the world does not use the internet in English.

Most people prefer to use the internet in their own language and search on their own culturally-appropriate search portals (often not Google).

Therefore it can be deduced that English-only websites with great rankings on English Google can be largely invisible to, for example, those millions of Chinese using Baidu who search in simplified Chinese.

Thinking beyond Google

Businesses wanting to achieve an international presence must think beyond Google and Yahoo when planning their global search marketing.

Despite Google’s dominance in the English-speaking world, local search engines in many countries continue to grow their market share.

In India, Rediff is extremely popular, often delivering more effectively than Google.

The South Koreans tend to prefer their local Naver, and Czechs also like their own search portal, Seznam.

These search engines are also commonly less pricey than the better-known global names.

In China, Tencent QQ and Baidu lead the search engine market. Both sites have nearly two-thirds of the market share.

Baidu has also recently launched in Japan, illustrating that local search providers are actively seeking to widen their audiences and are not intimidated by Google.

Cultural internet behaviour

In designing the content and set-up of a website geared at a particular culture, local online search behaviours should be researched and incorporated into the plan.

In French, the use of accents is an important consideration in search terms. In Russia, phrases are often written and searched for in Cyrillic but are frequently phonetic English.

Many languages like Czech and Spanish have either accents or diacritics, which search engines often see as different phrases.

In English, we don’t have this accented system, so translating directly would omit these spelling varieties, and in turn, miss business.

Without thorough optimisation, websites are invisible for these terms.

Also interesting is how cultures interact with the web.

Although we use the same language, US web culture is very different to UK web culture.

For example, US searchers will tend to use the word ‘vacation’ in searches, whereas British searchers are more likely to use the word ‘holiday’.

Change is good (for the multilingual web)

Recent changes in web culture rules have paved the way for multilingual SEO to become a bigger player in internet marketing.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently approved a recommendation that will introduce a whole range of new names to the internet’s addressing system.

The ICANN changes will allow the use of non-Latin or Roman characters in top-level domain names.

This means that we will begin seeing Japanese Kanji, Russian Cyrillic, or Persian Farsi characters in website URLs as early as next year.

This will give an advantage to companies targeting countries which with such non-Latin or roman scripts, who make use of multilingual search engine optimisation.

Proactive marketers will act promptly while the competition remains low.

Greig Holbrook is the managing director of Oban Multilingual.

Econsultancy will be running a one day training workshop on International (multilingual) Search Engine Optimisation on 18th November 2008. Please see the event outline for more information.