Expanding into a new international market is an incredibly exciting moment for a business, and can open up fantastic opportunities for new growth. If you’ve done the research and are confident that this is the best next step for your business, let me start by congratulating you.
And when it comes to international SEO as a necessary part of global expansion, it’s important to keep in mind that what you’ve learned in your home country won’t necessarily translate to every new market. (See what we did there?) While the use case for your product or service remains the same, simply translating your existing marketing copy may throw a wrench into the way that information is perceived by your future customers and search engines.
Lost in translation – A lesson about localization
I came to the U.S. in fifth grade. To this day, I have a very vivid memory of a “self-esteem building” exercise we did as a class. For the exercise, all students taped a blank sheet of notebook paper to the top of their desks. Then, everyone had to go around the room and leave positive comments about each one of their classmates.
At the time, I barely spoke any English. Aside from knowing how to say “hello” and “how are you?”, I relied on my pocket translator to help make sense of the world around me.
After everyone completed the task, we went back to our seats to review. The comments were anonymous. To me, so were the words.
I reached for my pocket translator and began translating every word, from English to Russian.
One of my classmates wrote, “you rock!” — A common phrase, usually interpreted in a positive regard. But think about the direct translation… “you stone!”
Here’s where my foreign brain immediately took me:
“Am I dull and boring?”
Since then, I learned that telling someone they rocked was a compliment. I also learned not be so trusting of my pocket translator. There’s a great and not-so-subtle lesson here for businesses looking to expand to new markets and new languages. Your good intentions won’t translate without a little extra effort.
Why Google Translate or translation chop-shops won’t cut it
Though technological advances in natural language processing have come a long way, when it comes to marketing your business in a foreign language, it’s best to avoid using direct computer translation without a heavy dose of human help from someone living in the market who knows your industry.
While programs like Google Translate may be sufficient to help you get directions or to order a meal in 100 different languages, pure translation services should not be trusted with the core messaging of your business. At least not yet.
The example from my childhood is harmless. However, consider how a direct translation of the word “rock” could impact your customer’s understanding of your product.
Say, for instance, you run a business that sells top of the line toothbrushes and you want to expand your market to Russia. Why toothbrushes? Because I’m a strong believer in dental hygiene (just ask my dentist).
Now imagine, somewhere in your marketing copy, you quote a happy customer: “this toothbrush rocks!”
Russian translation: “Эта зубная щетка камни!”
Direct meaning: “This toothbrush stones!”
I don’t know about you but something about a stone-like toothbrush doesn’t sound pleasant. If I came across that quote, I’d pass.
*If you think this sort of a thing doesn’t happen, check out this list of 20 epic fails in global branding. If those brands have done it, you could too.
So what can you do instead? Hire a professional translator to both translate and localize your content. If you find a good one, they’ll be able to provide a far more accurate and engaging translation of your copy—which plays a major role in the way your customers will find you.
Going further with localization
Now that your content doesn’t read like a direct output from Google Translate, your next job is to make it feel as though it belongs in the targeted region. This means finding a way to fully localize it.
I think of localization as travel research. Before traveling abroad, I research cultural customs, learn a few basic communication phrases, and of course, get a good understanding of the local currency. Why? Because I don’t want to look like a complete idiot, especially not while wearing my obnoxiously bright, 60-liter travel backpack. #tourist
Beyond not wanting to look like a total goon, I also do that research because I want to avoid being immediately judged as the outsider. For a business, avoiding this moment of mistrust is key to growth and development in new markets.
Localizing your business means taking the extra step in getting to know the foreign market and the individuals who live there. It’s also a critical step in establishing your business as authentic to the new country and communicating your message without friction.
Beyond things like changing dollar symbols into rubles, you’ll want to ensure that other parts of your content are customized for things such as regional variations and cultural norms.
Even if you’re expanding from an English-speaking home base to another English market, you need to be mindful of regional differences. For example, if you’re marketing a U.S. based product to Brits, at the very least, you’ll want to have a good understanding of the most common regional variations that exist between the two.
Keep in mind, regional differences aren’t only international. If you take a look at the U.S. market, you’ll find search differences for “soda” vs. “pop”. While search engines are generally smart enough to understand the user’s search intent, the user is still likely to choose the option that is more familiar to them—this is based on the mere exposure effect.
Having a solid understanding of regional variations will improve your search results. After all, if you don’t know how your prospective customers are referencing your product or service, they’ll never find you.
Cultural norms can mean a lot of different things. A useful guide to the dimensions of cultural difference as you’re looking at international expansion is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions framework. Cultural norms vary region by region, city by city, and even home by home, but this model looks primarily at differences between countries. One of the best examples and most important as you’re planning your marketing strategy and brand positioning is in the difference between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.
If you’re marketing to an individualistic culture, you’ll want your message to focus more on the “I”. It is common for people of such a culture to have goals and desires that help them be independent. Countries like the United States, Canada, United Kindom, and Australia are well known for their individualistic views and practices.
Alternatively, if you’re marketing to a collectivistic culture, you’ll want to focus more on the “we”, highlighting groupthink mentality and focusing on solving goals that will benefit the well-being of a community, not just a single individual. Countries like China, Russia, and the Philipines are great examples of markets that fit into the collectivistic culture norms.
To state the obvious, this is the kind of foundational positioning and marketing work that would never, ever come back from a translation engine or an inexpensive translation service.
Tying it back to SEO
If you read our post on Content-First SEO, you already have a clear understanding of the content/SEO relationship. When it comes to the international expansion and SEO, the core lesson from that post still applies: SEO is about content.
Once your content is properly translated and you have a solid understanding of your localized target keywords, then (and only then) will you be able to make technical SEO changes that will help you show up in search for the exact phrases that your customers use to find a business like yours.
Whether you found a new way of referencing your product or service, or you identified new keyword opportunities, you’ll need to optimize your website with all of those new or refined targets in mind.
Where to next?
Expanding to a foreign market is incredibly complicated. We’re only scratching the surface of the cross-cultural marketing considerations here, and there are a huge number of fundamental marketing challenges from core positioning to brand or line extensions that you’ll need to work through before you ever get to international SEO and localization. But, beyond ensuring that your content is simply coherent and optimized for search, I hope you take this charge to create content that connects with the people in every market you serve.