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Challenges of the Latino Search Market

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We've covered the opportunities in the Latino search market, and the explosive growth taking place due to early adopters. However, while there are many opportunities, there are also many complex challenges. Before jumping into this largely untapped search space, search marketers need to understand each of the obstacles one by one.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies Latino conference, June 18-19, 2007, in Miami, Florida.

Internet penetration smaller, search population smaller

Latinos trail other countries and regions in overall search audience. According to an April 2007 report shared by comScore's Executive Vice President Jack Flannigan, out of 650 million searchers worldwide, Latin America has 45.3 million unique visitors, make up just 7 percent of the total search market – lower than their actual population count, and just a 15 percent average internet penetration for the entire Latin American region. U.S. Hispanics themselves make up just 2 percent of the total search market. Both numbers pale in comparison to 24 percent of all of North Americas, 28 percent for Europe, and 35 percent for Asia Pacific.

However, the Latino search market isn't about current totals so much as determining trends. A closer look at the report shows that Latin America has a whopping 16 percent yearly growth. That's far higher than the near-stagnant 2 percent growth in North America. When you also add that Latinos spend much more time online than any other group in the world, Latin America and U.S. Hispanics are on their way to becoming major market forces in the years ahead.

Consumer market relatively new

According to Lucas Morea, CEO of LatinEdge Inc., Latin America is lagging a few years behind the U.S. in average Internet experience. Many online Hispanics are still learning their way around the Internet. As a result, many aren't fully comfortable with making purchases online.

Latin American consumers may require considerably more hand-holding for customer conversions. You need to write copy around building consumer confidence. This all relates to building credibility and trust when marketing to a Latin American country, especially if you are not known in that area.

Scattered search space

"Universal search" is already becoming the trend in the U.S. space, and Latinos are already far more spread out in their Internet and search activity. They have heavy participation in online forums, blogs and other social media. They are also spending a lot of time with video search, and accessing the Internet from mobile devices. They are doing much of their online browsing activity in the language of their choice, and the region of their choice.

There are considerable numbers of U.S. Hispanics who will frequent Latin American search sites – both from major U.S. brands with region-specific search sites, along with regionally and culturally exclusive Latino sites – based on cultural affinity. This all means that search marketers can't put their marketing strategy on just one search space if they're going to effectively reach and convert Latino audiences.

Lack of infrastructure

Gonzalo Alonso, Google's General Manager for Spanish-speaking Latin America, is responsible for the operation of all the Hispanic markets in Latin America and the U.S. Alonso professes that government infrastructure by most Latin American countries is currently not where it needs to be to incentivize full-scale business movement to the Web. This naturally affects the ability to do online business in Latin America, and good support services can be harder to find. Credit card penetration in Latin America is low, and the banking systems are not yet ready to face the online challenges of a well-supported e-commerce system. "Online businesses have to find new, creative ways to get money, especially micro-payments," said Alonso.

Lack of quality Web content

Latin American businesses are new to the Internet as well, and the overwhelming majority of Web sites targeted for Latino audiences are not designed for search. All the speakers at the recent SES Latino agreed that there is a lot of available content, but very little of it is optimized for search, and thus is not showing up in the search results. Alonso admits that Google, which has a huge 72 percent of the Latin American search market, itself suffers from a considerable lack of quality Spanish and Portuguese-language content in its own search results.

Limited search tools

The search marketing tools for the Latin American market are not as well developed as they are for the U.S. market. Currently, the number of keywords per search is lower than in the U.S., a natural result of a newer market. Search marketing keyword research tools, and research tools in general, don't have the same volume of data as they do in the U.S. and other developed countries.

Research tools are beginning to evolve for the Spanish market, but they don't have the power to geo-target at this point in time. Larry Mersman, VP of Trellian Software, proprietor of the popular keyword research tool at KeywordDisocovery.com, uses a "Spanish" database which lumps keyword data from a non-Latino country (Spain) along with Latin America. "At this time, our data sources do not differentiate between regional languages or dialects," said Mersman. This can make targeting specific countries or marketing segments difficult. While developments are in place with industry-stand search marketing tools such as Trellian's to improve on its keyword targeting capabilities for region-specific audiences, they will clearly take time to have in place.

Sarah Bernier, Spanish language search marketing consultant at FindLaw, says "it's been a struggle to do Spanish language research, there are definitely more obstacles." She explains why not having geo-targeted keyword research tools can pose a problem. "People in Spain use keywords that are specifically for Spanish, with the accents already on the keyword. So if you're pulling from a global source, you're going to get those searches coming through. So you need to know if your market will have access to keywords like that, which in the U.S., they probably don't. Are they going to know to type in the number with the ALT key command, and are they actually going to prefer to do that? And then you have to know if the keyword research tool you use is even going to recognize and give those results. I have instances of both, where it will recognize it or won't; or in between, where the keyword research tool will recognize it but won't give you much information."

Search tools' accuracy with language and region-specific research isn't just an issue with improving on the tools. It also requires more intelligent, specific search queries by the Latino audience. Latin America is several years behind more developed Web audiences like the U.S., which means smaller number of actual words in an individual keyword query, making it more difficult in turn for keyword research tools to show specific data, and for search marketers to target specific Latino audiences.

Limited search research

The search market is definitely in need of much more research on Latinos, and especially on Latin Americans. Currently, there is very little written information on international search with Spanish language speakers. It is important to know what sites to focus on, and what sites in Latin America have a decent share of the market. If you don't know this, the rankings in them won't do you much good. Alonso says that the burden of producing market research will likely rest on the search marketers themselves. "'Governments are not doing it, so it's up to search engines and search marketers themselves to step up and fill the void," said Alonso.

Limited search marketing talent pool, additional costs

It can be very difficult and expensive to break into the Latino market. Many U.S. companies find that they do not have the resources they need in house to make the transition, explains Matt Williams, VP of Prominent Placement. "It is especially difficult to find experienced, knowledgeable search marketers that are also both fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable of your target audience," he said. "It is expensive to also have to include translation, localization, and acculturation services. Project management is much more complex, which adds significantly to time and money."

On top of the search marketing costs, there are additional infrastructure costs to provide goods and services to Latin American countries, like international shipping and native language tech support.

Language barriers

There are definite language barriers for the Latino market. The Latin American region has two native languages. While many think of the Latino market in terms of Spanish, Brazil, the Latin American country that has the highest Internet traffic and a whopping 38 percent of the entire region's search audience, speaks Portuguese.

Emerson Calegaretti, VP of client development in Latin America for Acronym Media, explains that 48 percent of the potential customers in the Latino market prefer Spanish or Portuguese content over English. This means that if you're trying to reach the Latino market, having web site content only in English could mean you're not reaching half of your target market.

A big misconception is that simply translating your current English language content will get the job done. Even Web sites that have been translated into Spanish or Portuguese don't always have well translated content that reflects their full services for their Spanish language audience "Simple, word for word translation will not be effective," says Calegaretti. "It is critical to have someone who understands the language, the culture, and how to write copy to get your message across."

"It is a challenge to translate into the native language, because simple word for word translation will lose your message," says Marcelo Sant'Iago, director of business development at MediaClick Performance Marketing. "There are different dialects and cultural references among the various Latin American countries."

Search marketers also need to understand language and cultural translations between English and Spanish/Portuguese popular keyword searches. This goes beyond just optimizing native language content on your current web site, or building a duplicate site.

It can also mean adjusting your text ads (as Spanish and Portuguese can be lengthier in describing the same message in English, making it more of a challenge with character count limitations), adjusting the word length of your on-site anchor text links (for the same reason) and on your landing pages."

Turning challenges into opportunities

The challenges that exist with the Latino market right now are the very reason that there is great opportunity. Search marketers who enter this space early, and are willing to deal with the complexities, will very likely be in a much better position to establish a long-term presence.

It clearly will take extra resources and partnerships with companies already involved in this market space, but search marketers can capitalize on the opportunities and lack of competition in the market at this time. Waiting to get into this market will allow other companies to establish a strong presence, and gain loyal customers. At the rate this market is growing, an investment in it now will pay off for years.

Coming next, search optimization tips for transitioning into the Latino market.

Grant Crowell is the Senior Project Director for Grantastic Designs, and a contributor to the Search Engine Watch Blog, focusing on video search topics. Grant also serves as a video production and optimization consultant, and produces documentary video content for Walking Eagle Productions.

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