Before we launch into things I wanted to start by explaining the motivation behind this post. Far too often I hear of businesses looking for “keyword translation” to use as part of their international organic and paid search campaigns, as well as seeing professional agencies offering “keyword translation” as a service, and, each time I do, I face-palm!
As a member of the translation and digital marketing industries I wanted to add my two cents’ worth and explain why the translation of things like keywords, ad-copy and slogans isn’t really going to help your campaigns in the long run.
Let’s start by asking a couple of questions about your home market digital activities:
- How did you go about conducting your keyword research?
- Did you use Google Keyword Planner, or similar, to search for appropriate terms and assess their search volumes?
- Who wrote your ad-copy? Was it created from scratch?
- Do you use slogans as part of your campaigns? Were they written with your home market in mind?
I imagine you’ve conducted your keyword research and created your ads in the native language of your home market, all from scratch, and targeted specifically at the activity of your intended audience. Great job! So why not replicate these activities in the languages of your international markets, making sure you assign the right people to the job…
Ad Text Creation in Target Language (optional Back Translation)
Effective PPC ads must clearly present the message, display a compelling call to action and be culturally and linguistically accurate. A native paid search specialist will create engaging and relevant PPC ad texts in the target language, based on the keywords and landing pages to be used in the campaign. You’ll receive a set of ads ready to be uploaded to your campaign. A back translation in English is optional.
Search Linguists vs. Translators
The main reason that you shouldn’t directly translate keywords, ad-copy etc. is because translators just aren’t the right people to ask. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t ask your tailor to re-sole a pair of your shoes now would you? No because a tailor has a different set of skills to a cobbler. The same goes for Search Linguists and Translators.
For a successful global campaign you need to get both teams involved; assigning them appropriate roles and responsibilities.
As the infographic to the right shows some of the main projects linguists and translators work on in the wonderful world of international digital marketing.
Often there can be confusion when clients ask for particular service but actually mean something else. So below you will find some handy definitions to help you on your way.
- Translation = Taking a piece of source text and translating this into the required source language using the most appropriate terminology to replicate the source. Focus is on expressing the meaning of the source succinctly, and professionally maintaining the tone of voice and vocabulary requested by the client.
- Localisation = Taking a piece of text and adapting it to a specific locale. Taking into consideration environmental factors such as religion, politics, culture, language variations etc. Focus here is on ensuring that content is appropriately targeted and suits the audience.
- Copywriting = Researching and writing new content from scratch directly in the target language. Focus here is on creating engaging, dynamic content specific to a particular audience.
- Transcreation = Translating a piece of source text and making alterations or additions to the target based on guidelines set out by the client during the project briefing stage.
Each of these stages involves a different strategy and workflow and in most cases is carried out by different professionals. Depending on your requirements some of these stages may be combined but guidelines should always be put in place in order to ensure that there is consistency across all content in some way or another.
At the heart of almost every search related activity is keyword research, and in order to conduct a successful international research it’s vital that you consider the following three things when it comes to your target audience: culture, language and the local search engine of choice (Google, Baidu, Yandex, Seznam, Yahoo! Japan, Naver).
Culture and language can be significantly affected by directly translating the keywords you use for your home market, and I’ll explain why.
Around the world, search habits differ incredibly due to cultural dissimilarities like the importance of colour, texture, material, individuality, wholeness, and behaviour when it comes to describing an object or substance. When it comes to language-specific features there’s even more to take into consideration. You need to pay attention to features like transliteration where things like brand names might yield better results if kept in English, the use of accents, inclusion of misspellings in search results, character replacements like using umlauts in German or not, and for languages which have several case systems there might even be differences in the search volumes generated for each case equivalent.
I often get irritated by articles I read online which say “invest in a great translation service to meet your international keyword needs” or “run your list of keywords through Google Translate”. To me advice like that is a big no-no! Yes, you could get a vague idea of the sort of keywords you could use in your efforts, however literal translation will not take in to account the way people individually search. A translation may be perfect in terms of spelling, case, grammar etc. but it is unlikely that the direct translation will be the term used best in search results. Let’s look at an example which demonstrates the difference between translated keywords and native keywords:
In the blue columns we can see a seed-list of keywords relating to the term “skirt” along with the corresponding search volumes for the UK region. These keywords when translated into both Chinese and German illustrate the most appropriate equivalents to the English terms. The search volumes of these translated keywords, from Baidu and Google respectively, are shown in the red and green columns.
Here we can see that different countries search for things differently with the translated Chinese equivalent to “mini skirt” being searched for almost 5 times more often in China than in the UK. You also have some translated keywords being searched for much less in China than the UK such as “tulle skirt” and “sequin skirt”. The same applies to the German translated keywords, again the equivalent to “mini skirt” is searched for more and “sequin skirt” less.
Although you will get some search volumes for translated keywords you may also be missing out on other opportunities which you would have come across had the keyword research been conducted by a native search linguist. So let’s have a look at some examples which demonstrate this:
Here we can see that there are several native terms for both Chinese and German which would have been missed if just using the translated keywords above. For Chinese there are a potential 35,700 searches being missed per month and for German a potential 26,900. That’s 91% of missed opportunities for Chinese and 72% for German!
Surely you’d want to maximise your chances of appearing in SERPs by using highly searched for terms like those illustrated above? If you’d simply translated your English keywords then you’d kind of be shooting yourself in the foot. If you’re not a native speaker of your target language then you’re going to have the disadvantage of not knowing those culturally dependant terms which, in reality, would yield better results for your brand or product.
When you’re putting together a paid search campaign your main aim is to generate some sort of interaction from your audience, this could be lead generation, sales conversions, brand awareness etc. With international campaigns you also want to interact with your audience, and if you’re expanding into completely new territories then you are likely to be looking at increasing brand awareness overseas, at least in the beginning.
Now we all know that “you only get one chance to make a good first impression”, and your ads often acts as that first interaction with your audience. Poorly planned ads will put your brand at risk of making a bad impression.
Directly translating ad text can have exactly the same effect that translating keywords does in terms of not appealing to your target audience due to being too literal. However, there are more things to consider when it comes to translating ad-copy.
In the world of translation it is well know that languages can expand in length by 30-40% compared to the English source, and this poses a real problem when it comes to ad text due to the character restrictions set by the search engines. See Google’s restrictions below:
German is one of the worst culprits for text expansion so let’s look at another example. “Home Insurance” translates to “Hausratversicherung” in German which comes out at 19 characters in length compared to the English equivalent at 14 characters, including spaces. If you wanted to use “Hausratversicherung” in your headline then you’d end up eating into those valuable 25 characters. Equally when it comes to languages like Chinese which use double-byte characters you’ll find yourself under the character limits.
Like keyword research you’re more likely to yield better results by creating the ad-copy from scratch as a native speaker will be able to use their creativity to choose terms which are relevant and adhere to those pesky character restrictions; you won’t get the same outcomes if you simply translate your ad text. Think of it this way, if you ask a translator to translate your ad text into German and they find themselves over the limit how would they know what to cut? You could run the risk of them excluding something which might be vital to your campaign, or end up changing the meaning of your ad, and that’s dangerous. In the case of Chinese they could only be using half of the available space meaning more copy could be added, but that would fall outside of the translator’s responsibilities; taking us back to that initial point about when and when not to use translators and search linguists.
Another important, albeit old-fashioned, part of your marketing campaign might be the use of slogans. Here issues may also arise when it comes to directly translating these catchy one-liners into other languages. In order to end this post on a light note here are some fun examples of when slogans have had to be localised, rather than translated, in order to suit the target market.
When Intel branched out into the Brazilian market they didn’t think about the fact that they would have to localise their slogan “Sponsors of tomorrow”. When directly translated this came to mean something which implied that Intel weren’t quite ready for tomorrow. Oops! That’s probably not the first impression they wanted to make. Instead they localised the original slogan to “Apaixonados pelo future” (“Passionate about the future”) which proved much better.
If you’re living in an English-speaking part of the world this slogan is probably familiar to you:
“Kids and grown-ups love it so – the happy world of Haribo!”
This infectious, and slightly annoying, sing-song slogan is certainly memorable but just doesn’t work in other languages. Below are the French and German equivalents which, although are loosely along the same lines, have been again been localised to suit the relevant audience.
Now who would you task with the job of localising a slogan? A translator would do exactly what happened to Intel’s slogan first time around. You wouldn’t get a very catchy, coherent or meaningful slogan as a result of translation. Translators do not have the right capabilities to make changes to slogans or in fact to even make up a whole new one. A linguist however would be able to work with your marketing team to help find an appropriate alternative in the local language. After all you don’t want your slogan to be memorable for the wrong reasons.
Translation is a wonderful tool which we can all use to communicate on a global scale, however in the world of digital marketing there are certain things which really shouldn’t be translated; where possible, keyword research, ad-copy creation and use of slogans should be carried out by a native speaker of your target language. If you really want to make the most out of your international efforts that is.
It’s like I said at the beginning of this post, you conduct your keyword research and create your ads in the native language of your home market, and I imagine you generate excellent results from this, so why wouldn’t you want the same for your international campaigns? Translation may seem like a “quick and dirty” way to get your international campaigns off the ground, but in the long run you might find yourself dedicating more time and effort to tidying up poor quality ads and inadequate keywords.
In order to ensure that you have a really strong international campaign you want to have a team made up of both translators and search linguists. We still need to use translators to deliver high quality translated page content, and we still need to use search linguists to do the keyword research and optimise this page content; so please make the most of the resources available to you, following the advice above, and I can guarantee that you will be in a better position to deliver a strong international campaign.
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