31 Top Cultural Factors to Consider for International Search

In a previous column, I talked about 10 fundamentals of international search marketing, noting that dealing with environmental factors is one key to success. There wasn’t enough space to deal with all of the potential environmental factors worth considering, as there are quite a few, so here are some of the most significant!

These factors affect search marketers because they have a direct impact on how people search — and what the evidence of their search patterns in keyword research actually means. They are, by the way, not in order of importance as that will depend very much on each individual campaign.

  1. Language and dialect: We’ve covered this topic well, so I won’t detail this one again — except to say that language is also a marker for other cultural differences. A different dialect raises linguistic questions, and also the probability that other cultural factors will be different.
  2. Alphabet: Certain alphabets (or non-alphabets in some cases) have a big impact on the way people search. Probably the most extreme and fascinating of these is Japanese, where characters are double-byte and consist of three different types ranging from the original Chinese characters to the more phonetc varieties — all mixed up to create multiple word spellings and opportunities for search marketers.
  3. Input method (PC, mobile, tablet): Whether you use a “qwerty” style keyboard or the miniature keypad on a mobile, an iPad, or an iPhone, you’re led to search in different ways by these different keyboards. There is limited research on this now, but I’m sure it’s coming!
  4. Religion: Obviously, religion is a strong cultural factor, but most important for search marketers is the way this divides different areas of countries. The state of Bavaria in Germany is strongly catholic, for instance, whereas the rest of Germany is largely protestant. Nearby Austria follows Bavaria’s example. You could argue that Bavaria and Austria have more in common than the rest of Germany.
  5. Wealth: Again, this is obvious but nonetheless gets forgotten. When someone tells you that there are 400 million Chinese online or that more than a billion people live in India, that can be a captivating and tempting number. They might even search in huge volumes for your keywords but have not a dime to spend with you, which represents something of a cultural trap.
  6. Climate and weather: This is a hot topic of conversation in the U.K. — even if the weather isn’t usually so “hot.” Unpredictable weather conditions will make people turn to search more for weather predictions, which can be an opportunity. I doubt many who live in Singapore check the daily weather forecast!
  7. Dress sense and clothes fashion: You probably won’t find much success with your “Lederhosen” — going back to Bavaria — if you’re targeting the U.K. where “shorts” are more what scouts wear than grown men. I recently did an exercise looking for search terms for “party shoes” internationally. Search terms varied immensely, but interestingly so did the product. What one nation considered “party shoes” wouldn’t have been worn in another.
  8. Broadband, dial-up, or pigeon: This was the main cultural factor everyone talked about when I started in international search because people didn’t have broadband in that many places. Now, when the differences in many countries are less extreme, it’s become just another factor. Actual access to the Internet continues to become less significant — except that the proportion of web use that goes through mobile phones is only likely to increase. Meanwhile, the location where people access the web can be a bigger factor. In many African nations, for instance, a large percentage of web access takes place in Internet cafes.
  9. Product distribution systems: In the e-commerce world, how you deliver your product is an enormous consideration. There isn’t much point in targeting innermost Mongolia — if there’s no possible logistics solution. Funnily enough, you can actually check the logistics conditions in a market using keyword research!
  10. Color codes and meanings: You don’t want to be using purple on your web pages where that means “death” — unless that’s your field of operation!
  11. Style of government: Democratic, dictatorship, socialist, communist, hypnotist, or right wing, it all counts to influence how people search and what they search for.
  12. Travel distances: I’m always amazed by how large U.S. distances are compared to what we’re used to in the U.K. Equally, in the time it takes to cross America, I can cross 40 countries and land in Baghdad. Now there’s a thought. Looking at a map associated with your search terms, you might miss that eastern part of Russia is actually not hours, but days of travel from Moscow by train (trust me I’ve done it — it’s a long way…).
  13. Population density: Take a look at the Netherlands or the Bay Area of the U.S. How do so many people sit inside their cars on the same roads every day? But having been caught regularly in 20-plus mile traffic queues in the Netherlands, you might find that car searches are either for luxury cars with lots of entertainment facilities — or just as likely for bicyles, which are often quicker.
  14. Rural or city forms of living: In many emerging markets, including Russia, India, China, and Brazil, the majority of the web market is to be found living in large cities. Knowing this is key to how you target — for instance, you might start by targeting “Moscow” rather than “Russia.”
  15. Bicycle, car, bus, train, or underground: How do people typically travel? This will impact not just what products they seek, but also when and where they access the web.
  16. Parcel delivery speed expectations: Don’t expect to run an e-commerce business in the U.K. if the fastest you can deliver to customers is in three days — that’s just not regarded as acceptable. Meanwhile, two to three days delivery in France would actually be pretty good. As for Italy… let’s just say in some countries “arrival” is more important than timescale.
  17. Use of credit cards: This probably ought to say not just whether people have credit cards, but whether they like using them. Some in the U.K. have 20 or more credit cards — a German national is much less likely to have so many and probably avoids running up any kind of debt. Alternative methods of payment may be required!
  18. Pre-pay systems available: Brazil and Russia are two countries which spring to mind where systems exist for you to pay online by pre-paying a third party, either a bank (in Brazil) or a search engine (Yandex in Russia). If they exist, you probably need to accommodate them in your business.
  19. Level of education and literacy: Clearly, the level of literacy of web searchers will influence the way people search, but they still need things. Ever thought of creating a visual site where you click on images of things to conduct your product choice? Doing this could win you huge fans in many less well targeted markets.
  20. General living standards: Living standards and expectations generate demand for certain products. Living in a Western European nation, it’s likely you’ll expect to own a car, rent or buy a house, and eat well. In other countries, food, public transport, and entertainment may well be nearer the top of your list.
  21. Employment regulations: If a particular country makes it expensive to employ people and difficult to un-employ people, then outsourcing could be attractive for them to other markets enabling them to run their businesses more flexibly. Packaging services with your products might make them easier to sell, but the businesses will be searching for things differently.
  22. Women vs. men relationships: Who does the buying and who makes the decision? In common with many Brits, my wife chooses our holiday destinations, but then I do retain a veto. At least, that’s what I say.
  23. Typical number of children per family: Lowest birth rate in Europe? Often the Italians — having the Pope living in Rome doesn’t seem to matter. Families with one child are different than families of 15 — each having very different needs and levels of wealth.
  24. Tax systems: VAT is a common method of taxation in Europe, but the values vary significantly wherever you are — a domain purchase in Sweden, for example, will incur 25 percent tax. This has an impact on behaviors, too — you might expect there to be more purchases of alcoholic drinks in Scandinavia for home consumption than in other parts of the world, for instance.
  25. Explicit or implicit cultural behaviors: Do people say what they mean, or say what you want to hear? This might actually drive more search for things they can’t talk about in public.
  26. Role of public sector in the economy: If the economy is more heavily managed by the public sector (France for example), keywords for business-to-business services will be affected.
  27. Diet: This affects not just what they buy to eat, but whether they need your stomach drugs or suffer from dyspepsia.
  28. Internecine rivalries and ethnic diversity: Which Belgium? It can be easier to target parts of Belgium in English, rather than with the language another part of their federation.
  29. Mountains, plains, or coastal: Apart from dictating whether “skis” means something that goes downhill or across the water, people behave differently in the mountains, than the coast or cities.
  30. Freedom of speech and press behavior: This may be censorship or it may be a cultural dislike of something. The power of the press can be a huge factor, especially as online newspapers often run search engines — for instance in Poland.
  31. Preferred architectural styles: If they have large houses (Americans), they’ll search for big items. If they have small houses (the Brits in particular), it will be absolutely essential to include product dimensions.

Of course, the above isn’t entirely complete and never can be. My purpose is to give you tools to help your evaluation of international search marketing planning and research. If I’ve missed anything, I’d love to read your comments!

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ’s Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!

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