“Are you lactating?” — Mexico

“You’ll definitely eat your fingers.” — China

“Pepsi bring your ancestors back from the dead!” — China

“Every car has a high quality corpse.” — Belgium

“Female horse stuffed with wax” or “Bite the wax tadpole.” — China

If you haven’t figured it out yet, these are advertisements gone horribly wrong through translation. Can you guess which U.S. marketing campaigns go with which?

Got milk?

Finger-lickin’ good.

Come alive with Pepsi!

Every car has a high quality body. (Ford)

Coca-cola. Sounds like “Ke-Kou-Ke-La” in Chinese, which translates to “mare” and nascent amphibian, depending on the dialect.

When you’re tackling international SEO, it’s a much larger task than simply translating the copy on a website. It’s as much a piece of marketing as any advertising campaign, and to do it right (and avoid embarrassing yourself and the brand you’re working for) you have to understand the culture, dialects and idioms of your target audience.

Despite the inherent challenges of serving international markets, many companies are finding that the next logical step for their brand is to “go global.” If you’ve looked at your site traffic and see visitors coming from near and far, it may pay to make your site content relevant for users in that area. This may require setting up separate sites, or at least subdirectories, to help search engines — and most importantly, visitors — find content relevant to them. From there, it’s time to employ a combination of SEO Best Practices and Translation Best Practices.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation.” — Robert Frost

1. If you don’t want to lose the poetry, find a Sherpa.

You might be the best SEO specialist on the planet, but unless you spent your formative years in Timbuktu, don’t presume you can pick up “enough” on that destination from research alone. You’re going to need a Sherpa, a guide into the diction and culture of you target location, to effectively translate and optimize your website, conversion copy, landing pages, thank you emails and content. Whatever you do, don’t rely on online translations. Note: Your Sherpa doesn’t need to be a professional translator. You might find you get better copy by using a multi-lingual marketer or copywriter.

2. Create a local buyer persona

Your Sherpa can also help you build a buyer persona within your target geographical context. Abidah Shalhoub’s interests, keywords, buyer psychology, and customer service expectations are going to be very different from Amanda Schaffer’s.

3. Localize the details

Converting copy to the local language is the most obvious part of an international site to change, but don’t forget the details like currency, time zone, weather, addresses and phone numbers.* For example, if you offer a live Help Chat during business hours, make sure it’s during their business hours — not yours! And, don’t forget to change titles, meta descriptions, navigation, headings, text and image titles (or the images themselves).

*Don’t have a local office? You can buy a local phone number that you can redirect to your toll-free number.

4. Send the right SEO signals

  • Users tend to prefer country code, top-level domains. But, while sub domains are less popular and have less geo-targeting strength, they can leverage the established authority of their parent domain. Pick your poison.
  • Use hreflang or language meta tags to let search engines know which languages your website serves. It’ll look something like this: <link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com" hreflang="en-us" />.
  • Host your site on a local IP address. Not only does this give another hint to search engines that your content is relevant to that local audience, it also improves page speed.
  • Link to local content and build links from local places.
  • Look for local search engines (Google hasn’t taken over the world quite yet).

5. Find and use local lingo (ie. Keywords)

When optimizing a site for a foreign language, work with your translator/writer to develop a list of keywords that make sense to, and for, your market to incorporate into the copy. Then, use the Adwords Keyword Tool to find “related to my topic” keywords, and analyze them for popularity using Google Trends. If you copy/paste your translated text into Adwords, you’ll get an even longer list of keywords.

Counter-intuitive Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t automatically redirect users to a different language based on geography — they might be expats or English-speakers.
  • Do build links aggressively, and do supply an adequate budget for the task. Don’t expect every country to have the same link building strategies or link-outreach etiquette. For example, while guest blogging is common-as-dirt here in America, in Italy it’s far less common.
  • Don’t assume. Anything. You’ll need to do a lot of research into your target audience including keywords, behavior, competitors, interests, preferred content formats and media.

Essentially, the real challenge of international SEO isn’t deciding between a domain or sub-domain, finding the right keywords or switching out your meta-data. It’s all about understanding your audience — just like every other form of marketing. Only, in another language.

Author Photo
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeréNichole the Chief Strategy Officer at Inturact. She is also a moderator at Product Hunt and GrowthHackers.com; Previously, she was in growth at Inbound.org. View her website.
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