Author: Adriana Stein
I’d like to introduce you to Company X, a multinational company that wants to strengthen their international expansion efforts. During a recent strategy meeting, one of the stakeholders at Company X decided that it would be more efficient to create content in English and then use Google Translate for other languages. The thinking was that this would allow them to save their resources for the more technical stuff.
Although the marketing team had originally wanted to create targeted messaging based on regions, the idea of more multilingual SEO felt like too much manual work. Plus, they’d already done such robust SEO work on their English website, so wouldn’t directly translating content be enough to keep bringing in traffic?
In the next meeting, their regional sales manager complained that they didn’t receive any leads from their respective international language websites. In fact, none of the translated pages were even ranking or converting anyone. So, what happened?
Here’s the root of the issue: Company X focused on translation, not SEO localization.
Instead of implementing SEO localization, they copy/pasted what worked in English and simply waited for the traffic to come in. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common scenario when working on a multilingual website.
But, it doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be like this!
It’s entirely possible to use your website to fuel international growth in a manner that ranks well, resonates with your local target audience, and ultimately, generates revenue for your business.
To help you maximize your international SEO growth efforts, I’ll go over:
What is the difference between SEO localization and SEO website translation?
SEO website translation focuses on translating your website content from one language directly into another, often done via machine translation. The goal of SEO website translation is to increase audience reach and rankings within a specific geographic area in a specific language. This is usually done through directly translating the:
For example, content in English is translated into German using Google Translate in an effort to reach people living in Hamburg. It’s not reviewed by a native speaker and doesn’t carry the same intent as the English original. For example:
Stop beating around the bush
Direct translation: Höre auf, um den Busch zu schlagen
Stop beating around the bush
Localized translation: Höre auf, um den heißen Brei zu reden
If you’re from Germany, you’ll recognize instantly that the direct translation makes no sense.
Alternatively, SEO localization has the same foundational concept as translation in that words are adapted from one language into another, but it’s carried out by a native-speaker SEO strategist in order to ensure that:
Keywords are relevant to the local audience
Keywords have adequate search volume in order to impact holistic SEO growth in that specific market
Keywords match the local search intent
Headings, URLs, meta data and copy are optimized for local keywords and target the particular audience
Content has the right tone of voice
Content adheres to local messaging guidelines
Correct SEO settings are implemented for the multilingual site
Simply put: SEO localization includes crucial research and processes that SEO translation does not. When you rely solely on translation, you're missing out on a huge opportunity to rank for localized keywords and create content that effectively nurtures your local audience toward conversion.
What are the benefits of SEO localization?
When doing international SEO, the localization approach is the more effective option because it helps you:
01. Efficiently expand into new markets: Since the message will be curated based on local research, messaging guidelines, and search intent, it resonates more deeply with those who see it. And, when your audience feels that you’re “speaking their language” and meeting their needs, they’re much more likely to convert. Those conversions can help propel business growth (which is likely the reason you’re expanding internationally to begin with).
02. Enhance your overall user experience: When someone arrives on your website, how long do they stay? What pages do they look at? Do they convert? SEO localization reduces the bounce rate and increases the average amount of time someone spends browsing your website. Improving these metrics often goes hand in hand with higher conversion rates.
03. Develop market-specific organic search growth: Simply translating your content doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to rank. Keywords that have a ton of search volume in the US may have no search volume in Italy. In France, they may use an entirely different phrase to describe something than in Canadian French (consider multi-regional vs. multilingual). Ideally, each market would have its own SEO strategy aimed at capitalizing on that unique search intent in the local language. By focusing on SEO localization, you ensure that the content you’re investing time and resources into creating has the best possible chance of ranking, resonating with your audience, and generating conversions.
What is keyword localization?
A crucial part of SEO localization, keyword localization is the process of researching and identifying language-equivalent keywords that are relevant to a specific local market and have search volume. These are the keywords that you use to build your SEO strategy and set content production priorities.
Important: It’s a must that localized keywords have appropriate search volume to have an impact on organic traffic in the target market and consequently generate conversions. In many cases, directly translating keywords has little to no impact on SEO performance.
To strengthen your ability to manage your multilingual sites and grow with SEO localization, I’ve outlined three examples on how I’d approach the keyword localization process.
By search intent
Scenario: A company based in the US sells a highly popular heated tobacco product. They want to expand into Hungary with an SEO-driven approach.
fűtött dohány (heated tobacco)
dohányhevítő (tobacco heater)
When researching the direct Hungarian translation for “heated tobacco”, the phrase “fűtött dohány” showed no search volume. However, dohányhevítő (tobacco heater) has a search volume of close to 900. Although there are slight linguistic differences, the information the user is searching for when typing the Hungarian phrases dohányhevítő vs. fűtött dohány is the same, meaning they have the same search intent.
This is a prime example of when identifying matching keywords with localized search intent and search volume becomes a great content opportunity. It’s much more worthwhile to target keywords that local audiences actually use, which becomes clear in this case when we look at the difference in search volume.
The lesson here: If you don’t check out each keyword’s local search volume and consider similar phrases, you’ll lose out on valuable organic traffic due to minor linguistic or cultural nuances.
By search volume and competition level
Scenario: You need to localize a blog about “what is process management” from English to German to reach your audience in Germany.
what is process management
was ist prozessmanagement
When you review the direct translation without taking anything else into account, the search volume in Germany is a mere fraction of the volume in the US, so you may be hesitant to invest resources in creating content around this keyword. However, you’ll also want to zoom out and consider the level of competition in the US vs. in Germany.
Here are the top search results in the US for the phrase what is process management:
Now, take a look at the top results in Germany for the phrase was ist prozessmanagement:
If you scroll further down the results on both (not shown in the image due to length), you’ll notice much bigger competitors rank in the US as compared to Germany. In fact, the keyword difficulty for was ist prozessmanagement in Germany is 31, which is much lower than the US equivalent what is process management at 51. From this perspective, creating content for this keyword becomes much more lucrative because it’s easier to rank for.
You can further capitalize on this opportunity by building out the localized keyword cluster in German (related group of keywords you want to target in a piece of content):
was ist bpm (what is bpm)
prozessmanagement definition (process management definition)
The search intent behind was ist prozessmanagement and prozessmanagement definition are the same. And to make things even better, prozessmanagement definition has a higher search volume than the English keyword.
The lesson here: Ranking opportunities differ across markets, so take the time to dig deeper. In fact, it’s often easier to rank for important keywords in local markets than in English, because competitors are typically smaller and don’t have the website authority of larger competitors. Combine that with keywords that match the search intent in the local language and you’ve just found an SEO golden nugget.
By messaging and regulations
Scenario: You have an English-language article that ranks for the keyword how does crowdfunding work and you want to localize it into Spanish for audiences in Spain.
how does crowdfunding work
cómo funciona el crowdfunding
Here, we have a case where the direct keyword translation both matches search intent and has search volume—a rare case indeed! That makes the bones of the content easier to localize: the URL, headings, meta data, etc., can just be translated (but it’s always better to use a human translator than it is to rely on an automated service, like Google Translate).
However, there’s an extra step to consider: local regulations.
Let’s say you did some research and found out that fundraising regulations in Spain are entirely different from in the US. This now means that you can’t just translate the rest of your content from English to Spanish. Instead, you need to research the crowdfunding process in Spain and ensure that your content matches their regulations.
The lesson here: SEO translations simply don’t take into account international messaging and regulations. Always take the time to understand what information your local audience truly needs. You certainly don’t want to get in trouble for providing false information!
Use SEO localization for better user experience and search visibility
Regardless of the language, your local market content needs to have the same quality as your original content if you want to maximize user experience for your international audiences. Take the time to plan your content based on keywords in the local language, that match search intent, and have adequate search volume.
And, most importantly, ditch direct translations.
When you collaborate with native speakers and embrace the process of SEO localization, that’s a strategy that truly drives international business success.
Originally from the US and now living in Germany, Adriana Stein is the CEO and founder of the marketing agency AS Marketing. She leads a team of multi-language SEO experts who develop holistic international marketing strategies for global companies.