In some respects, the business world has never been smaller. High-speed transport links mean goods can be shipped nearly anywhere with speed and ease, while the Internet, theoretically at least, puts a vast new market a mere mouse-click away.
While physical distances are less important, linguistic and cultural barriers remain firmly in place, and it takes a pro-active approach to surmount these divides. According to Internet World Stats only a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Internet users are native English speakers.
Studies have also shown that multilingual users put more trust in websites written in their native tongue, especially when it comes to making a purchase online.
Clearly, a multilingual approach is required if you want to truly tap the worldwide potential of the web.
Should You Target Location of Language?
The first thing to decide is whether to target your markets by location or language. You may consider it enough to make a single site for several markets that share the same language but you should be aware that there may be linguistic variations between different regions.
In Spain, for example, a computer is an ‘ordenador’, while in Latin America it’s known as a ‘computadora’. If you decide to target by language you should make sure your content translates across geographical markets and avoid any specific cultural references. Targeting by location will help avoid these issues and will also give you the option of boosting your SEO by using country code Top Level Domains (ccTLD’s).
The algorithms used by Google and other search engines take location into account and investing in a separate ccTLD such as .fr for France or .ru for Russia will help boost your rankings.
Ensuring the site is hosted on a server physically located within your target market will boost your rankings further. Even if you decide not to go for separate ccTLD’s you should place your localized content into separate sub-domains or sub-directories. You can then use Google’s Geographic Target tool to set geographic targets for each sub-domain and/or subdirectory.
Translating Your Content
There are different methods you can employ for actually translating your content. The simplest and cheapest way is to add a translation widget such as Google Translate or Babelfish to your site, allowing visitors to translate content to a language of their choice.
Building inline translation code into your site is a more involved process but provides a more intuitive automatic translation. All machine translation has scope for errors however. The ideal solution is to use a native speaking translator. This will help avoid mistakes and retain the meaning and nuances of your content. It’s also the most expensive option however and the choice will probably depend on available resources.
Tips for multilingual marketing, localization and SEO
Keep your languages separate
Google’s Webmaster Central blog recommends that you stick to a single language on each of your pages, with each element (header, captions, menus etc.) sharing the same language.
Google’s bots will attempt to determine a single main language for each page and they can get confused by side-by-side translations. How you separate the pages will depend on whether you are targeting your markets by location or language and whether you opt for country code Top Level Domains or a single TLD with extra sub-domains or sub-directories.
Use local social network sites
The burgeoning popularity of social networking sites makes them a useful tool in online marketing but remember that there may be sites in your target market that you are unaware of. In Norway, for example, Facebook is the most popular but local competitor Nettby had almost a million registered members last year. A bit of research will quickly reveal the biggest players within your target market.
Build local links
Link building is an important part in all SEO. Any links you build must still be relevant to the content of your site but, when dealing with multilingual websites, location is also important. In practical terms, this may mean identifying highly Alexa-ranked sites within your target market and offering guest posts and quality content in the local language.
Don’t directly translate keywords
If good quality translation is important when it comes to your content, it’s absolutely essential for keywords. A machine or dictionary translation will not be sufficient — a keyword that works in one market might not work at all in another, where regional variations, colloquialisms, abbreviations or other alternatives could all be more popular options. A literal French translation of ‘car insurance’, for example, would be ‘l’assurance automobile’. This phrase gets very few hits however, with alternative phrases such as ‘assurance auto’ or ‘assurance voiture’ proving much more successful.
Go beyond Google
Google is without doubt the most popular and important search engine worldwide but in certain markets local competitors are more commonly used. In the Czech Republic for example, Seznam is the single most visited web portal while in Russia Yandex is the most popular. All search engines have their own algorithms and it’s worth utilizing the keyword and other research tools of all the major players within your target market.
About the author
Christian Arno is founder or Lingo24, a global language services company with 130 full-time employees operating across three continents. With clients in over sixty countries and a network of over 4,000 professional translators, Lingo24 is on course for a turnover of $7m USD in 2010.