Being an international search guy, I'm often asked which is smarter: developing a multilingual strategy around a language or a country. Both strategies have benefits and challenges, but before you commence your program, make sure you know exactly your path. It's much easier to get it right in the beginning, rather than re-engineering your site after the fact.
Although every need and budget is different, here are some benefits and challenges associated with each tactic.
Targeting by Language
- Hosting can be local: Because you aren't specifically targeting one nation, hosting in target countries isn't as crucial.
- Multi-cultural by nature: Language is one of the biggest parts of a culture. Multi-cultural advertising touches those outside of, and even inside, the U.S. Spanish, for example, can easily cover almost all of Latin America in addition to targeting homegrown Spanish-speaking citizens.
- Lower cost: Hosting, having specific TLD's, re-engineering your site, and hiring a language SEO and content specialists can get expensive; targeting by a few languages, especially if they cover a lot territory and population, isn't nearly as expensive.
- Search engine optimization: It isn't impossible to rank when you're just targeting by language; however, search algorithms are typically built around the locality of countries they're in, rather than languages. If they weren't, while searching in Los Angeles, you might find results for dry cleaners in Australia.
- Linguistically wrong: Dialects and spelling are typically dissimilar across different countries that share the same language. In many cases, phrases and certain names can be taken the wrong way. The well-known story of Chevy Nova is one of those cases, where "No va" in Spanish means "no go." It affected only some countries that spoke Spanish, not all of them.
Targeting by Country
- Search engine optimization: There are many best practices around SEO in a specific country. In general, following Google's rules works just about everywhere. However, there are huge benefits to be gained with SEO targeting to a country. In-country hosting and having a specific TLD are two of those ranking benefits easily employed. Your keyword targeting in that country you chose now competes with fewer pages, thus making it much easier to rank well.
- Trust factor: Trust is by far the most important factor of all when choosing to target via language or country. Being local, and/or coming across as local as possible, will win more business than being multinational -- unless you're a huge, well-known global brand like Nike (which, by the way, also employs local strategies). When you give the user the sense that you understand them and that you're local to them, develops trust and trust is the goal of all marketers.
- Content duplication: According to Google, having the same content from one site to the next isn't a penalty. The risk, however, is not getting ranked. Many site.com's (U.S. version) rank better than site.co.uk's (U.K. version) when targeting the U.K. Often, the result is less conversions and some British guy laughing at your use of the English language and misspellings. There are ways to get around it, though, including rewriting the duplicated content, specifying language in Google's Webmaster Tools, and fixing links.
- Expensive: Did I just mention rewriting all of your content as one of the previous challenges? Yes, not only rewriting them, but hiring a content specialist from your target country gets expensive. And that's not talking about other languages either; not only is Brazilian Portuguese different from European Portuguese, you've got to get two hosting boxes in each country, have independent TLD's and different SEO strategies around each marketplace. Starting from the ground up in each country is a lot of work. Make sure you do good research before entering your choice markets. Also, remember that sometimes the differences between two nations and languages are close enough for you not to worry about.
Targeting by language can work well when you want to just provide users with the ability to understand the content on your site in a different language. It can be easily employed with the use of a paid search campaign and is a cheap alternative if serious cross-border marketing isn't the main objective.
Although, if your goal is a successful SEO or PPC strategy, targeting by country has more benefits then targeting by language. Targeting by country is true localization, competition is reduced, and crucial trust is gained. Yeah, it will cost you a lot more in the short term, but in the long term you may just win a market that thinks your brand is homegrown.