English could be seen as the lingua franca of the Internet, just as it is in the business world. It’s certainly the most commonly used language online in terms of content, but even so it represents only around a quarter of all Internet users according to Internet World Stats, and over half of all Google searches are in a language other than English.
Studies by the Common Sense Advisory show that the majority of multilingual web users put more trust in, and are more likely to buy from, websites written in their native language. With this in mind it’s clear that localization is more important than ever. Once you’ve decided to take that plunge, however, you must also decide whether to target your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) by language or by country.
Some languages are widely spoken in more than one country and you may consider it adequate to have a single site to serve every territory sharing a common language. A single site in Spanish, for example, could serve not only Spain but also huge swathes of the rapidly growing online market across Latin America. And a Portuguese website could cater for Portugal, Brazil and former Portuguese colonies such as Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique and various territories in India.
The most obvious benefit in targeting by language is that it’s cheaper to set up and maintain – you only need one translation and one site per language. But there are also drawbacks to bear in mind.
Firstly, linguistic usage can vary between territories, especially when it comes to vocabulary colloquialisms. Just as the English spoken in England, Australia and South Africa varies in syntax, so does the Spanish spoken in Spain and the different countries of Latin America. A computer, for example, is an “ordenador” in Spain but a “computadora” in Spanish speaking Latin America, while coche means “car” in Spain but refers to a baby-stroller in Latin America. Oh, and a baby-stroller would more likely to be used in North America, as UK readers would use a ‘pram’ or a ‘push-chair’.
If targeting by language, care should be taken that all content and especially keywords mean what they’re supposed to in each territory. Make sure you keep the language simple and straight-forward, and try to avoid specific cultural references, colloquialisms and in-jokes.
Another problem is that search algorithms take location into account when ranking sites. If targeting by language you should at least ensure that you organize your localized content into separate sub-domains or subdirectories and make use of Google’s Geographic Target tool, a handy Webmaster Tool that allows you to specify geographic targets for your localized target market.
Targeting by country can be more expensive and time-consuming but it allows you to improve your SEO and boost your rankings by setting up separate country code Top Level Domains (ccTLD’s) such as www.example.es for Spain or www.example.pt for Portugal.
These will automatically get higher rankings on Google and other local search engines in local searches. Ensuring the site is physically hosted on a server in the target country will boost rankings still further, while a fully localized site with its own ccTLD will face less competition than one created on the generic top level domain .com, which is what you’re likely to have if you want to direct all users of the one language to the same site.
Content and keywords can also be specifically tailored for the target market and search engines, allowing you to research the most effective keywords for each country rather than relying on broader search terms applicable across several territories. In addition, is allows you to target the full website content to a specific country audience allowing for a more nuanced marketing approach that will appeal on local level.
In SEO terms alone, it makes sense to target by country but the efficacy must be weighed against the costs and extra time involved in setting up and maintaining these sites. A happy medium could be to start with country specific sub-domains to test the waters. If you see a lot of traffic coming in to a specific sub-domain it may be worth investing in a fully localized site, including setting up its own ccTLD and doing targeted keyword research.
Being cautious with your international expansion may be prudent, but you’re likely to see higher returns on investment where you put the time and effort into fully localizing and optimizing a site for a promising national market. Ultimately, however, it will come down to a judgement call based on your business model and type.
Christian Arno is founder of Lingo24, a top provider of professional translation services. With 150 full-time staff across Europe, North America and the APAC region, Lingo24 secured a turnover of $8m in 2010.