Global SEM Growth Leaves U.S. SEOs Behind

FSBO: the English language For Sale By Owner. At auction: the entire world’s languages. Without a second thought, we buy and sell words on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask in the U.S. and overseas search engines. Now that search engine marketing has become a global game, the need for translation services for Web sites has never been greater.

Virtually every small- and medium-sized enterprise I’ve spoken with during the past year has been aggressively translating Web sites to reach global audiences. In the worldwide search engine ecosystem, that’s no surprise. What is surprising: the small number of SEOs (define) and SEMs (define) who leverage language translation.

Global Language Exchange

The Internet Marketers of New York invited me to a dinner recently, hosted by Search Engine Watch Forums leader and SEW blogger, Frank Watson, head of SEM for FXCM, a global forex trading brokerage. FXCM uses 10 languages. Not surprisingly, the talk turned to translating titles and tags.

“Successful marketers understand the subtlety required for multilingual Web sites,” Watson said. “There are variations in Spanish depending on country, as well as Chinese and other languages.”

Chris Winfield, CEO of, told the roundtable of fellow SEO gurus why he translates titles and tags. In short: he’s found that translated titles and tags can dramatically increase high-quality traffic to a Web site. That means traffic that converts.

Greg Niland of Good ROI also mentioned the value of seeing side-by-side translations online. Greg teaches SEO and does pro bono work for charities.

The Quiet American?

For a fast-growing, U.S.-based international company like FXCM, the benefits of translation are clear. Watson doesn’t mince words when surveying the efforts of U.S. marketers.

“Given the Web’s global nature, most U.S. marketers act like ‘Ugly Americans’ when they develop their Websites. Few use any other languages aside from English — and the American variety at that,” Watson said. “But when it’s done right the benefits are huge. These non-U.S. markets represent a much bigger audience than the U.S., an audience that can buy what a site’s selling. In August, comScore reported more than 61 million searches done, with only a little over 15 million originating in North America. It’s too big an audience to ignore. Let your competitors get there first and you can drop behind quickly.”

Brutal competition characterizes search engine optimization and search marketing. It’s migrating from the online world to offline. Language translation is a natural first step in communicating with diverse populations. In language translation, the offline world starts to look an awful lot like the online world to interactive marketers.

Database of Intentions in Translation

Let’s apply the principles of search marketing to the offline world. For example, Battelle’s online concept — “database of intentions” — informs our understanding of language translation and machine learning. Machine translation must guess at the database of intentions, just as search engines do. For humans, it’s the same story. When local translators work with clients, they help clients understand the context of conversations.

We want to know whether a person means what he or she says. It’s the old maxim applied across cultures: it’s not what you say but what you mean.

Machine translation hasn’t ignored context. A translation algorithm searches for patterns as if the words were numbers. A sophisticated algorithm doesn’t try to match one word — thesaurus-like — with another. By identifying “key words” in conversations for translation to get the gist of a businessperson’s meaning.

In very, very simple layman’s terms, that’s the human foundation for statistical machine translation. Ultimately, translation creates a second life for the first conversation.

Localization: the Last Mile

The final step? As in all forms of search marketing, think global, act local.

To check the wisdom of the crowd, I had a “LinkedIn Answers” conversation with Romanian-based Lucian Cristea Lucian, a former consultant (Deloitte Consulting and Price Waterhouse). He summarized geo-targeted, contextual language translation in clear and succinct terms.

“Localization means to transfer a message from one culture to another one without losing the meaning and the flavor of the message,” said Lucian Cristea Lucian, director at BitDefender/Softwin. “So, no matter the initial approach, automatically or using people, you need a final check from a local professional having a deep understanding of your product/service.”

Search engines won’t argue the point. Neither will Machine Translation engineers. They don’t promise to take people all the way to the “last mile.” Yet they’re helping small and medium-sized enterprises go farther and faster than they’ve ever gone.

Lucian leads a team of three managing directors, two area sales managers plus matrix management of 80 plus across the U.S., Germany, Spain, Romania, the U.K., and Denmark.

For many highly-networked, geographically-dispersed search marketing agencies and consultants, language translation for clients is an absolute necessity.

Language barriers fall at Search Engine Strategies and other global conferences like Foo Camp. Everyone’s speaking in the same search engine acronyms and high-tech shorthand.

While the conversation may be in the local language, it’s not in everyone’s mother tongue.

Meet Kevin Heisler at SES Chicago from December 3-6.

Related reading

Simple Share Buttons