Global SEM: A Story in Three Acts

Category: Marketing Translation

This article, written by Michael Kriz, was originally published in the American Marketing Association’s MarketingNews in September, 2011.

International search engine marketing projects can be on a nearly operatic scale, with multiple languages and locations, an often complicated plotline and, seemingly, a cast of thousands. Achieving success means finding a balance between diametrically opposed factors. You’ll need a firm grasp of natural human instinct and artificial machine intelligence, in both the domestic market and in each of your individual target cultures. You’ll also need to achieve consistent branding across cultures, while crafting communications that are meaningful—but not bland—for Web surfers in each micro-market. Luckily, you don’t have to tackle this kind of large-scale staging alone. Find the right producer to work with, a skilled language service provider with the cultural and linguistic expertise to guide you through the process, and your path can be much smoother.

To help you reach your SEM localization goals, we’ve laid out the following approach in three acts. Read on to find out how you can build these processes into your own website translation project and present completely integrated, seamless messaging on the stage of international search.

Act 1. Before you localize your website:

You’ve defined your international business model and your new markets. It’s time to get strategic as you make decisions about your new multilingual websites.

  • First, pick the right domain extension for each locale.Search engines have traditionally given preference to sites with local, top-level domain name extensions such as .cn, .de, .uk, .nl, .eu, .ar, .it, .br, .us and .au. Last year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) policy enabled top-level domain and URL creation in any language or script, not just ASCII (English keyboard norms).

To make the smartest domain extension decisions for each of your locales, you’ll want to do your research in partnership with a language vendor. If possible, find a local hosting solution and obtain a local IP address as well, since international search bots have a proven local bias.

  • Next, examine your English site for global relevance and decide what needs to be translated. This will help save you valuable translation dollars. For instance, should your blog be translated? Are all of your online resources relevant for global markets? Which of your PR communications are worth localizing? Perform a complete site audit and clearly communicate with your language partner what should and should not be localized.
  • Look for what your competition is doing in each market.What headers, menu item names and descriptions are other companies in your industry using? Check out their source code, pay-per-click campaigns and landing pages to review any available metadata. Take a look at websites in your industry that are top natural-search performers.

Act 2. As you localize your site:

You’ve done the initial groundwork for search-engine optimized, multilingual versions of your website. This next localization phase—working with your language partner to adapt the site to your target markets—will involve SEO keywords.

Keyword creation and seeding is challenging in the domestic market, but it’s both an art and science when you’re working across cultures and borders. During this step, you’ll provide a glossary of your English keywords to your language partner, who, in conjunction with native, in-country writers for each locale, will use testing through queries, gut reactions and native instincts to adapt your keywords and come up with their most frequently used synonyms. Your language partner will then create an ontology list with these different options and rank them, providing you with their recommendations for high-performance results in their locale.

Once you have keywords and phrases for each target market, you’ll seed them throughout your foreign-language websites, from titles, headings and URLs to descriptions, and image and video tags.

Act 3. After you localize your site:

You’ve launched your foreign-language websites, or they’re ready to go. Now begins the phase of pure international SEM, which happens through advertising, link building and social media engagement.

Choose the right search engine through which to advertise in each locale, using the information you gleaned in the first two phases of your global SEM localization. In China, for example, you will want to target Baidu, as Google has only a minor user base in comparison.

Instead of creating an apples-to-apples translation of your English pay-per-click and banner ads, work with your language partner to rebuild these succinct ad phrases. That way, you prevent concatenation (mismatched or disordered sentences), text that’s too long and cultural insensitivities. If you provide guidelines to your language partner, its in-country copywriters can adapt your ads culturally and linguistically, taking into account your desired tone and the partner’s knowledge of local grammatical conventions. Maybe your U.S.-based pay-per-click ads are all calls to action, similar to Virgin America ads that encourage consumers to “Grab your seat.” But in other cultures, a less direct approach such as “Want to get away?” could be more effective Your language partner will weigh in here and guide you through the process of adapting each ad in a culturally appropriate way.

Incorporate references to local events and holidays in your ads for bigger emotional impact. It’s important to work with an in-country expert when developing your holiday promotion editorial calendar. Holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day don’t always coincide across countries—or they may not be celebrated at all. Stay informed so you can avoid the faux pas of orienting your seasonal ad campaigns around the American holiday calendar.

Select negative keywords for your international pay-per-click campaign the same way you chose your website’s “positive” keywords, with native-speaker instincts and test queries. Include this facet in your overall strategy up front to save your company precious dollars and achieve higher-quality leads.

Make your landing pages visually and linguistically consistentwith your referring ads. Carry out a thorough content review to ensure that all graphics and videos are globally neutral. Use the results of your cultural market research to inform your decisions around payment solutions, legal restrictions and user interface aesthetics. Everything from your copy to visuals to functionality must be culturally appropriate and consistent with your ads. That way, international Web browsers can easily follow the trail to the right page on your website.

Finally, promote your site through social media channels and with link building. Your language partner can draft or translate press releases, work with you to select and concentrate on the most popular social media sites in each country or locale, and submit your site to local directories. As with SEM in the domestic market, the more inbound links and engagement, the better.

When you’re ready to begin rolling out your own SEM campaigns on the international stage, follow the playbook here, find the right language partner to help you produce your campaign and you’ll be well on your way to joining the ranks of today’s star international marketers.

Bio: Michael Kriz is the founder and president of Acclaro Inc., an international translation and localization agency based in New York. For more information, visit