Crossing the pond with your search engine marketing strategy

By Warren Cowan | 09 Nov 2007

With the internet succeeding so far in keeping its promise to bring us all closer and break down geographical barriers to commerce, selling more to more people in more places has never been more possible. Search engine marketing (SEM) is perhaps the fastest, most cost effective and logistically friendly way to take advantage of this opportunity and extend your market reach into new countries and territories.

With access to SEM programmes like AdWords, and optimising your site for natural rankings, a business can tap quickly into a purchase-motivated audience anywhere in the world. But before you rush to your territory map and stab a pin in the nearest available landmass, you must spare some thought for the local audience on the ground.

Localisation essentials

When it comes to keywords in an SEM campaign it is important to remember that they are representative of an entire culture's popular experience of your product or industry. This means they will vary from country to country, even where English is a 'common' language.

If you consider the U.K. and U.S., both have similar trends and cultures, but refer to things fairly ethnocentrically. For example, Americans more commonly use the term 'flat panel TV', where Brits more frequently refer to 'flat screen', 'plasma' or 'LCD'. Small nuances, but these distinctions can make the difference, unlocking thousands of daily visitors. Cultural sensitivity is even more acutely required when translating search campaigns into other languages for multi-country campaigns, both at the keyword and creative level. Marketing history is already riddled with embarrassing case studies of 'translation' related marketing disasters like Pepsi's, and search is no exception.

Keyword analysis must be undertaken in each new territory, as opposed to simply translating word for word. This requires some current cultural knowledge and often domain knowledge. For example there are several words for 'stockbroker' in German, however only one is the current popular term likely to yield any search traffic. Get things like this wrong and you could kill a campaign. Likewise, the word 'cheap' needs to be handled with great care. The word 'cheap' has become a choice search term that preempts almost every other. If the most popular search term in the hotels sector is 'hotels', the second most popular term will be 'cheap hotels'.

But use the word 'barato' (Spanish for cheap) in a Latin American campaign, and it could be misconstrued as meaning inferior quality. This can be avoided with a wiser choice of words like 'hoteles con descuento', i.e. 'with discounts'. Keywords also vary in terms of spread and depth, where searchers' language is heavily limited and weighted towards a few select terms. Holland is a prime example. The phrase 'car hire' or 'autohuur' accounts for 90 per cent of car hire searches by the Dutch. Contrast this with the U.K. or U.S. where there would be maybe 10 major terms accounting for 75 per cent of searches, not even accounting for regional terms.

This kind of weighting affects both PPC and SEO campaigns. PPC campaigns have more limited scope for breadth. Advertisers need to aggressively compete on one or two words, battling a lot of price inflation. They need to primarily focus on honing campaigns through landing page persuasion, pattern matching, day parting and dissecting traffic. This will help to maximise the efficiency of this narrow but deep traffic opportunity. When it comes to SEO, rather than optimising dozens or maybe hundreds of pages for a myriad of phrases, it is just one page that should be optimised for just one phrase. In some cases, the competitiveness of the term shapes the project more towards link building, rather than just refining the copy.

Getting a natural ranking in international search engines
Getting a ranking naturally can be an incredibly powerful way to enter a new market. However, successful strategies for the U.K. may not be greeted with the same enthusiasm by local search engines in other regions.

From a worldwide perspective, search engines like Google use one central database to provide results to all the regional Google's, filtering and arranging for different geographies to provide a more relevant user experience. For a long time Google's reliance on links created a very U.S.-centric experience for markets in other countries. This happened because U.S. sites were part of a bigger culture and audience, and hence were more likely to have more people linking to them, pro rata, than a similar site in another country. This is why U.S. sites always had more links and could easily dominate regional search results. Google has tried to nullify this effect slightly over the years by being more selective when compiling local results, picking websites with local hosts and or domains. From what we've observed, Google now appears to give slightly more weight to back-links from domestic sites than those from another region, when sites are ranked in a local index. This allows them to compete on a similar footing with U.S. sites that have a naturally higher link count.

This creates a minefield for international companies who have tried to centralise their website operations under one brand or domain. You can't just put French pages on a dotcom/fr part of a site hosted in Seattle and expect to rank highly on

Reaching the regions
More complex is the creation of a site for a non-domestic, but English-speaking region. A U.S. company for example, wants to have a site specific to the U.K., Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Canada and so on. It mirrors much of the copy and structure of the U.S. site for each territory.

Given that Google already holds this information from the U.S. part of the domain, these sites are seen as duplicates and are often delisted. This results in the main dotcom site being listed lower on international variants of Google. This is because the U.S. domain is not as locally relevant according to its domain, IP address, or its backward-link makeup. Fortunately, whilst global SEO is not as straightforward as getting a website translated and is dotted with pitfalls like these, the challenges discussed above are not insurmountable. Everything can be fixed with a little time, effort and investment in the right solutions.

A good search agency will have established best practices to get around tricky issues like these. The better agencies can offer expertise in areas like domain strategy and international linking campaigns, as well as strong multilingual and culturally fluent talent at their disposal.

So before you make a leap into the unknown, seek some professional advice to ensure you get the best return for your efforts.

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