How Language Affects the Long Tail

Accents are a big piece of the international SEO puzzle. Different language structures can affect, and often lengthen, the long tail in ways that aren’t on many people’s radars.

For the purposes of this column, we’ll focus on the German version of the “cheap flights” keyword, which principally revolves around the term “Billigflug.” This term represents many of the potential issues surrounding international keywords.

First, checking Google Translate, the translated term for “Cheap Flights” is “Billige Flüge.” Before we dig more into that term, let’s consider the range of language issues we need to think about in our multi-language keyword research.

Multilingual Keyword Evaluation Checklist

The issues presented by keywords in languages other than English — when compared with English — are actually predictable, and it’s not all about misspellings. The following checklist is useful, but note that it varies per language.

No. Description Relevant for SEO Relevant for Paid Search
1 Plural versus singular Yes Yes
2 Dropped accents Yes Yes
3 Common mistypings caused by keyboard layouts Yes Yes
4 Broken compounds Yes Yes
5 Alternate characters Yes Yes
6 Inflections Not German Not German
7 Prepositions Not German Not German
8 Common misspellings Yes Yes

How Well did Google Translate do?

To save time, I’ve already collated a list of 445 keywords or phrases containing “Billig” and “Flug” so I can easily report back on the seven different parts of our checklist. The first step, however, is to check out the position of that Google Translate translated term and see where that sits.

“Billige Flüge” is a valid search term, but it’s the eighth most popular, with 165,000 global monthly searches. That means seven terms are more popular and have more than 2.5 million monthly global searches.

Still think Google Translate works for keyword research? Think again.

Plurals or Singular

English keyword researchers will often say that, from experience, people who search for plurals are looking for lists and comparison sites and “singular” searches therefore are looking for something more specific.

In our “cheap flights” example, the plural represents 61.5 percent of the total searches, with the singular taking 30 percent. I don’t have direct access to conversion statistics on these terms, but it isn’t the case that only the plurals convert because there’s an additional motivation that doesn’t exist in English. Singular searchers get to avoid typing an umlaut or accent.

How Correct are the Spellings?

You might expect one of the world’s leading engineering nations to engineer its language so that spelling was generally correct. But a recent spelling reform means spelling errors are now more likely in German.

In the case of the “cheap flights,” our research showed an error rate of 16 percent. Basically, one in six terms was incorrectly spelled. To put that numerically, more than half a million searches per month are driven by incorrect spellings.

Whoops, I Broke my Compounds!

The German language is famous for making lots of smaller words into longer words, such as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz — supposedly the longest word in the language. Actually, it’s made up of seven words.

For search, the problem isn’t the compounds themselves, but that many searchers break compounds into components when searching. For example, “Billigflug” is also searched for as “Billig flug.” In our research, 684,101 searches involved a broken compound.

Sometimes Spellings are Optional

Languages sometimes have different ways of spelling things. For instance, Japanese can sometimes have as many as three or four different spellings of the same word (because the writer can use different styles of character).

Other languages have alternate characters — and German has a couple of those. The umlaut can be written by placing an “e” after the vowel where an umlaut has been missed. (So Atkins-Krüger can also be written Atkins-Krueger.)

These alternate spellings are correct, but add to the long tail in terms of forms. In the case of “Billigflug,” 3.6 percent of searches (or 117,095) insert an “e” to avoid using the umlaut.

How Much of This Really Affects Search Engines?

All of the points in the checklist cause the long tail to lengthen. If you think English has the longest tail, you’re mistaken. German wins easily against English because of all the linguistic factors adding to the mix.

From a paid search point of view, if you’re targeting 10,000 terms in English, typically you’ll need to target more than that in German. And while accents are normalized in some languages (i.e., they produce the same search engine results whether an accent is included or not), that isn’t the case in German.

Could this be why English-speaking organizations that target Germany find the going tough? Partly.

Every language is different and presents its own issues. You need to be linguistically thorough to be successful!

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