Author: Veruska Anconitano
Visitors from various countries may come to your website because they want to buy something, interact with your content, or avail of something you offer. The more intuitively they interact with your pages, the faster they see the benefits you offer and start trusting your brand. Naturally, your business will benefit from more leads and/or conversions, too.
If they can see the content in their language, the experience will undoubtedly be more rewarding and fulfilling.
For this reason, going international is a smart, prudent move for many companies (not necessarily for everyone, though). And through SEO, those businesses can boost reach, revenue, and brand awareness to gain a competitive advantage.
Going international without a solid strategy in place may be a waste of resources or even detrimental to your brand. And, a solid global SEO strategy doesn’t only mean minding every technical detail and translating bits and bobs to start seeing an ROI. It takes effort and time to become a fully international company and ensure that your product and content can be consumed across multiple countries in multiple languages.
In this article, I won't discuss international SEO strategies and “must-do’s” per se, but I will introduce you to the concept of cultural relevance in international SEO, which can be make-or-break for your visibility and your conversions. This includes:
Before we dive in, here are a few statistics to put things into perspective:
There are nearly 8 billion people in the world.
There are 7,151 living languages. Of that, just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population.
English is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide if we count both native and non-native speakers in 67 countries (146 countries if we include the places where it's not an official language).
Chinese is used by 1.3 billion people and is spoken in 38 countries.
Approximately 548 million people speak Spanish in 21 countries.
There are roughly 274 million French speakers in 29 countries.
None of these countries speak the same exact version of English, French, Spanish, Chinese, or any other language. Interaction and search habits also vary by country. And so do expectations and needs. This is where cultural relevance comes into play.
The importance of cultural identities in international SEO
Cultural identity is the sense of belonging to a particular culture or group, and it’s based on various categories, including nationality, ethnicity, language, race, social behaviors, art, literature, cuisine, and much more. Cultural identity is formed through our interactions with others and is strongly connected to the social, cultural, and political contexts in which we live.
To simplify: I was born in southern Italy, and like most Italians from the south, I grew up thinking that Sunday lunch was sacred. To this day, and despite where I live now and all the experiences that have brought me far from Italy, it immediately brings back memories when I see something related to a Sunday family lunch.
As another example, take a look at the image above. When Pampers entered Japan in the seventies, it used the image of a stork delivering babies, not knowing that in Japan, babies are said to come from a giant peach floating down a river. Not being able to identify with the image, Japanese people completely overlooked Pampers.
Cultural identities are shaped on a personal and a community level by constantly absorbing, interpreting, adapting, or even rejecting the beliefs, values, social behaviors, language, and norms of their communities. Cultural identity is a changing process because of different social, cultural, historical, and personal experiences, and every time it changes, it alters the way we perceive things around us.
The reason behind this is simple: identifying with a particular culture provides people with a sense of belonging and security, and makes them feel somehow in control of their world.
Have you ever heard of ARMY (the BTS fans)? They created a specific cultural identity, something to belong to and share: they have their language and slang, their colors, their logos, and their own lingo. To win them over, companies have started to create products that appeal to this demographic and market existing products using references that strongly speak to this cultural identity.
Cultural identities play a big part in how people interact online at every stage of the sales and marketing funnel. These identities manifest in many different ways when we search online, including (but not limited to):
Using singular vs. plural search terms
Using infinitive vs. present tense (plural or singular)
Searching for a specific type of content (e.g., reviews) or a generic head term
Familiarity with a brand
Searching for brand vs. non-brand content
Searching for time-sensitive content or only for evergreen content
Searching for images or text based on the context
Using split and compound versions of nouns
Cultural identities also manifest in how different people from different parts of the world engage and consume online content. Oversimplifying the matter:
Germans may be known for being among the most demanding in assessing quality and value. They also research in-depth information and evaluate pricing, competitors, features, and reviews.
French people trust the word of mouth and the referral system. Also, according to Salsify Consumer Research, 44% of consumers abandon their shopping cart if they cannot find relevant product information.
Italians tend to prefer products and services that are “Made in Italy.”
Sustainability and care for the environment influences 4 out of 10 Spanish consumers in at least 60% of their purchasing decisions, according to the Jealsa Consumption and Sustainability Observatory.
Japanese people tend to prefer quality over mass consumption and are attracted to products imported from countries perceived as "specialized," such as Swiss watches and French wines.
But, why should we be concerned about cultural identities in international SEO?
When we go international and want to reach users organically, we must focus on targeting their interests, values, and expectations. If people belonging to a group of any kind are not convinced by what you sell and, most of all, how you sell it, they’re unlikely to click on your content, or if they do so, they may soon bounce.
Cultural identities go hand in hand with cultural relevance, and both shape the way international SEO should be done (and, consequently, they influence your results as well).
The importance of cultural relevance in international SEO
Every online business’s goal should be to reach and engage with people in a way that is consistent with their cultural identities as well as the context and values of their communities. To simplify, this means making them feel at home.
It starts with the theory of recall and recognition used in psychology (and widely accepted in UX).
Recognition is our ability to “recognize” a piece of information as familiar, while recall refers to retrieving details about specific events from our memory. For example, when we see someone we know on the street or at an event, we can recognize this person, but if we haven't seen them for a while, we may not recall their name.
Think of your memory as a big container divided into compartments: Each compartment talks to the others to ensure that information is retrievable and accessible. For example, when we recognize a ladder, we are reminded of how to use it. The more we use a compartment, the more specific information surfaces quickly. The more a compartment is associated with a positive or negative feeling, the easier a piece of information will surface by association (have you ever heard of the Madeleine Effect?).
How easily information can be retrieved from our memory depends on how often we’ve interacted with that information, how recently we’ve used it, and how relevant it is to what we’re experiencing in real-time. This is as simple as it sounds: the more you listen to a song, the more you get used to it. The same is true for every experience, both in real life and online.
The more you see a brand popping up everywhere, the more acquainted you get and the more prone you become to buying or interacting with the brand. This happens because recognition is more manageable than recall, and it doesn’t require a significant effort to retrieve information essential to complete an action: the more we see a brand, the more we recognize it, and the easier we can process the information we get from the brand if it aligns with our values or needs.
In International SEO, we can call this principle “cultural relevance.”
People want to engage with companies and businesses that feed them with elements they recognize and can easily associate with a feeling, an emotion, a memory, or simply the resolution (or the cause) of a problem.
What users can quickly process and understand without too much effort is culturally relevant to them. And, they want to do it from the very first moment they search for something.
As an example, try searching for “football” in the UK and “football” in the US and look at the differences: culturally speaking, football for British people is what soccer is for Americans, and on the flip side, football is just American football. Can you imagine how British users might respond if a page title used the term “football” with the American meaning for football in the British sense?
The goal of international SEO should be to offer users that speak a different language, adhere to different values, and use the web differently with an easy way to interact with a product or brand, making them feel included and, most of all, “seen.”
That involves, for example:
Market-based keyword research
Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation
References to culturally recognizable elements
Sensible use of images
Appropriate use of sensitive terms (for example, avoiding terms that are considered discriminatory)
Contextual use of slang, idioms, and cultural references
Avoiding stereotypes and clichés
Taking seasonality, celebrations, and anniversaries (and the customs associated with them) into consideration
If you think cultural relevance and sensitivity have no influence over SEO, think twice: The SEO strategy you adopt is strongly connected to the overall business approach to internationalization. If a business wants to go international by simply translating elements into another language—without trying to achieve the so-called product-market fit—your SEO strategy will be affected (and potentially useless).
Cultural relevance in SEO: A practical example
Let’s say we need to optimize a travel booking search engine. One of the categories of the website is “villas.” The business wants to go international and optimize this category page in Italian, so keyword research and on-page optimization are required.
In English, a villa is “a large and luxurious house” or “a country estate.” This is one type of villa:
If we opt for a 1:1 translation, we can easily use “villa” (and its plural, “ville”) in Italian since this term has the same meaning as the English one, and search volumes are pretty good. On top of this, some of our competitors are using it, and the market seems aware of this term.
Here are the associated search volumes (data from Semrush):
As you can see, the term villa has a relatively large search volume, but is it relevant for our audience?
Things are never so easy when it comes to language: The first thing that comes to mind to Italians when hearing the word “villa” is probably a property surrounded by well-tended gardens and ample space. Hence, it is perceived as luxurious and culturally linked to an opulent way of living and traveling—at a certain point, that can be much more than a potential user is searching for in a vacation rental and could throw them off.
“Villa” is also used to describe big, ancient mansions (like the palaces you can visit in the Veneto region, for example); hence the search intent for the term “villa” may simply be unclear and too broad for a category page.
A native knows that “villa” in Italian can be at least four things:
Villa (English: villa)
Villino (English: cottage)
Casa di campagna (English: country house)
Casa vacanze (English: holiday home)
Now, let’s analyze our fictional example website a bit more in-depth: The properties offered on our website range from luxurious to average to accommodate our audience’s needs. Furthermore, the target audience is far larger than just luxury travelers
To perfectly capture this target audience and their needs in Italian, it would be better to target terms with smaller search volumes and higher CTRs (such as “villino” and “casa di campagna,” as shown below). Those are the terms that an Italian looking for a place to stay for a holiday would use during the discovery phase:
At first glance, these four keywords (as you can see, plural and singular have different search volumes in Italian) have sensibly lower volumes compared with our initial keyword, “villa.” But, they correspond to higher-intent audiences and capture both the company’s offer and the market’s needs. On top of this, they are appropriate for the market we want to enter. By making this choice, SEO brings real value to the business, allowing it to consciously and effectively break into the market.
The key takeaway is that before moving into proper research, we need to study our offerings, the market, and the cultural background of the country we’re looking to compete in if we’re to be successful with international SEO.
In this case, any native would agree that the term “villa” only partially captures the spirit of the page, and by implementing adjacent and more relevant keywords, our business will appeal to the right users and their search intents, which should allow for more conversions.
Prioritizing relevance over search volume is crucial for businesses seeking to grow internationally, and showing cultural sensitivity makes users feel included.
Why cultural relevance is crucial in international SEO
Cultural relevance and sensitivity are essential to succeed in the “glocalization phase” and beyond. When a website is optimized to include culturally relevant elements from the user’s first interaction to their last, it can help them decide whether to engage with the brand.
Here are some of the user benefits of incorporating cultural relevance into your international SEO strategy:
Being hyperlocal helps cross-cultural awareness and can improve your understanding of the user’s perspective on information and what’s important to them. This, in turn, improves user satisfaction, brand affinity, loyalty and overall conversions.
It’s an opportunity to guide users through their journey. Since how individuals process information can differ according to culture, the more you’re able to meet users’ expectations along their journeys, the easier it will be for you to guide their decision-making process.
It helps your business meet local users’ needs and potentially create more demand.
Cultural relevance is also beneficial to your business. In fact:
It can increase CTR.
It can lower bounce rate.
It gives you a competitive advantage when it comes to analyzing your users’ behaviors.
It allows you to hone in on what users want, potentially opening up more business opportunities.
Thanks to hyperlocal and relevant content, the brand can show customers (and prospects) they cater to their specific needs at every point of their journey.
Amazon takes this seriously, developing content for specific countries. In Italy, for example, you can browse and buy products from the “Made in Italy” section; in France, you can browse and buy “Produits Fabriqués en France” (Made in France).
More interestingly, you can also buy Made in Italy products on Amazon Germany: search volumes, geographical proximity, and cultural relevance made this section the perfect candidate for cross-optimization.
International SEO is more than keywords
If we move from considering international SEO as a way to simply be visible in a given market and instead think of it as one of the main drivers of awareness and revenue, we can conclude that (when working in an international environment) keywords are just a part of something bigger.
Images, buttons, colors, and the position of the elements on a page all play a big part in how a website will rank, how it will be seen by locals, and, of course, how it will convert.
Once again, this seems utterly unrelated to SEO, doesn’t it? Well, once again, it is very relevant. Let’s say you brought some to your landing page with a captivating title and exciting topic. As soon as they enter the page, they leave. What benefits did SEO bring to the business? A million site visitors isn’t very valuable if none of them convert due to a lack of proper localization.
We are facing a new era in search. Every element on a page is a potential conversion factor because today, more than ever, companies expanding internationally don't just compete against other companies, but also against the best experiences people have had with a similar product or service. Suppose a customer had an excellent experience with a website or a company. In that case, this experience will be stored in their unconscious mind and become the minimum expectation they want everywhere. In other words, companies need to create a long-lasting experience to win consumers over. It's like when we go to a Michelin star restaurant: the food is only a part of the adventure, and if the entire experience is as satisfying as the meal, the place will remain in our minds, and it could become our personal benchmark for all the other starred restaurants we visit.
This may not be on your radar if you’re marketing in your home country, but it's strategically essential in international SEO. Users have different expectations across countries, and understanding customer priorities in a given market can help companies identify opportunities for differentiation and growth.
How to incorporate cultural relevance in your SEO strategy
We always assume that if a formula works for the primary market (or any market), it can (and should) be easily replicated in every other market. In international SEO, this is impossible because of the cultural implications we’ve reviewed so far. Instead, we can and should incorporate cultural relevance in our strategy by following a few rules.
Do not translate keywords
Translating keywords from source to target language is one of the greatest sins you can commit. This approach rarely works, not even for countries close to each other that potentially share some cultural values.
Imagine your Australian website has a page about natural disasters that needs to be optimized for two international markets: the Philippines and Germany. If you decide to replicate the information on the source page for these two markets by translating the keywords from Australian English to Standard German and Tagalog, you will waste resources and an opportunity: natural disasters in the Philippines differ from those in Australia, and both differ from those in Germany.
In addition, people have different sensitivity to catastrophes, and what can be seen as an extraordinary event in one country may not be seen as such in another. This means you may need to not only review your content but also its tone of voice.
Localize instead of translating content
As with keywords, content should never be translated word-for-word. Instead, it should be transcreated and localized to ensure that it fits local audiences’ needs and customs.
For example, Austrians do not share Oktoberfest with Germans. They have their own celebration called the Wiener Wiesn. What use would a page about Oktoberfest translated from German be when the audience is likely looking for a specific page about the Wiener Wiesn and its traditions?
During the research phase, you will end up with URLs that may not have a local equivalent in all languages, and this is 100% fine: if something doesn't make sense in a particular country, it shouldn't exist on that country’s version of the website.
Optimize for conversions
We tend to think that conversion rate optimization is something SEOs deal with only sporadically and only when it comes to CTAs. This couldn’t be more wrong in an international environment.
The way potential customers interact with a company is shaped from the first interaction (usually via search engines), especially if the company is entering the market and needs to be visible. Hence, it is crucial for everyone engaging in international SEO to optimize their title tags and meta descriptions for optimal conversions.
In the example above, the Skyscanner Spain team uses a clearly conversion-oriented key phrase, best offers (mejores ofertas), to attract people looking to book a flight. In doing so, they also invite users to do something actively (“encuentra,” Spanish for “find”) rather than serving them with pre-selected choices.
Cultural relevance pairs perfectly with conversions: The more local you go, the better it is. If your tone of voice allows it, you can also use slang, conversational words, acronyms, and trendy elements that your target group will easily recognize and potentially identify with.
Use data to assess the situation
CTR and bounce rate are two of the most critical indicators for international SEO: if a user lands on a page and immediately leaves, it means something is wrong. If you get traffic but no conversions, it means something is wrong. During your analysis, you may discover that it’s not a problem you can solve from an SEO standpoint, and you will have to pass the ball to other teams.
But before doing so, make sure you sit down and consider everything that is within your control. If it’s not a technical SEO issue, it may be happening because of cultural irrelevance: a Finnish user doesn’t need the same information as a Portuguese user, and a Portuguese user doesn’t need the same information as a Spaniard, and so on. If information is irrelevant, the data will reflect that and help you make informed decisions.
Optimize per country, not per language
When we optimize per language, we start from the assumption that since a language is spoken in multiple places, our content would be digested the same way in all those places.
The truth is that not only can the language slightly vary, but users’ needs will also vary from country to country, and content in one language won’t be enough to address all the users you want to reach. This is a common issue when it comes to Spanish-speaking countries. Using one variant of Spanish to address all users in Spain and Latin America is one of the biggest mistakes a company looking to go international can make.
Every language reflects a society’s cultural, political, and economic elements; on top of this, the marketing and users’ needs differ based on their location, even if they all speak Spanish. Imagine feeding Spanish users with content written in Mexican Spanish: they can understand more or less everything, but there will always be a reluctance in moving from stage one (interaction) to the final stage (conversion). And, many of them won’t even start a conversation with your business if your page title shows in Mexican Spanish on Google.es.
Avoid publishing irrelevant content and pages
You may be tempted to translate everything from source to target to capitalize on the resources spent to create the articles in the first place. If the content you’re about to localize doesn’t resonate with the audience of your local website, you may severely hurt your local website by filling it up with irrelevant and useless content.
In this scenario, we’re referring to content that a local user won’t ever see or search for and can be easily considered low-quality content: this type of content will waste crawling time and resources, add noise, and send search engines the wrong signal. You can hide content by unlinking it from the language switcher, like Hubspot.
Don’t overlook low-volume keywords
In international SEO, keywords with the highest search volumes don’t always work within the context of your content. A targeted, local keyword may have a significantly lower search volume but can perform better, be more appropriate given the context, and work well to attract local, high-intent users.
Use a translation management system, not Google Translate
Machine translation is not necessarily the culprit when it comes to many international websites’ problems. By leveraging AI, machine translation can actually simplify the job of local translators and writers.
Implement a translation management system (TMS) to streamline the SEO localization process and ensure that native speakers revise every piece of content for context. Smartling and Phrase are two popular platforms that can be integrated to manage international content.
Create an SEO glossary matching volumes, search intent, and cultural relevancy into your TMS so that every time a specific term comes up, it gets translated in the same way.
When a business chooses to go international, the first thing to be mindful of is the market they’re entering, search habits, users’ habits, common perceptions, stereotypes to avoid, standard customs, sensitive events/holidays, and anniversaries. Being culturally relevant and keen to adapt is vital to succeeding in international SEO. In fact:
A person’s (or group’s) culture influences online processes and behaviors.
Getting hyperlocal is the key to breaking the barriers to enter a new market.
Cultural relevance helps a company engage with users, making them feel included and creating a strong foundation for brand loyalty.
Users don’t want to spend too much time deciphering information (which is likely to occur on a poorly localized site). When this happens, they just move on.
We now know that cultural biases affect people’s expectations when searching for something. That’s why, nowadays, if you want to go international, you need to plan a customized SEO strategy for each market, considering cultural identities, cultural relevance, and cultural sensitivity.
By aligning your values to the community you want to serve, you will realize the potential of SEO in generating awareness and revenue for your brand. And most importantly, you will help users find what they are looking for and expect to see.
Veruska is an SEO consultant that works at the intersection of SEO and localization to help companies enter non-English-speaking markets. She follows a culturalized approach to SEO and localization, leveraging cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and data. Twitter | Linkedin