Benefits and drawbacks of targeting by language vs. targeting by country.
The most common mistake when companies decide to launch a multilingual and international search campaign is focusing on language rather than country. There are obvious benefits and challenges to both strategies, but before you commence your program, know exactly what you're getting into. It's much more difficult to re-engineer your site later, so get it right in the beginning.
Benefits of Targeting by Language
Save on costs such as hosting and top level domains (TLDs)
Since you are not specifically targeting one nation, hosting in target countries is not as crucial, and it should save you some money. Besides hosting, having specific TLDs, re-engineering your site, and hiring a language SEO and content specialists can get very expensive. Targeting by a few languages, especially if they cover a lot of territory and population, is not nearly as expensive.
Multicultural by nature
Language is one of the biggest parts of a culture. Multicultural advertising not only touches those outside of North America, but internally as well. A multicultural Spanish campaign, targeting U.S. Hispanics, for example, can easily be converted to cover almost all of Latin America.
Drawbacks of Targeting by Language
These certainly outweigh the benefits:
Issues with SEO
It's not impossible to rank when you are just targeting by language, but search algorithms are typically built around the locality of countries they are in, rather than languages. If they weren't, while in Los Angeles, you might find your local dry cleaners in Australia.
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.
Benefits of Targeting by Country
Targeting your campaign via country will likely provide you with more value. Some areas of success include:
Succeed with your SEO
Many SEO best practices exist in each specific country, and following Google's rules in general 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 that could be easily employed. Additionally, keyword targeting in the country you chose now competes with fewer pages, thus making it much easier to rank well.
Developing the trust factor
I feel that the "trust factor" is by far the most important factor when choosing to target via language or country. Being local and/or coming across as local as possible is going to win more business than being multinational, unless you represent a huge, well-known global brand like eBay (who, by the way, also employs local strategies). When you give the user the sense that you understand them and that you are local to them, it develops trust - and trust is the goal of all marketers.
Drawbacks of Targeting by Country
If you're not careful, there can be disadvantages to targeting a specific country:
According to Google, it is not a penalty for having the same content from one site to the next; however, not getting ranked is the risk. I have seen many .com sites (U.S. versions) rank better than their .co.uk (U.K. versions) counterparts 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, like rewriting the duplicated content, specifying language in Google's webmaster tools, and fixing links.
Did I just say "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 can get expensive. And that's not talking about other languages either - for example, Brazilian Portuguese is different from European Portuguese, plus you'd need two hosting boxes in each country, independent TLDs, and different SEO strategies around each marketplace. Starting from the ground up in each country is a lot of work. Make sure you do solid research prior to entering your choice markets, and keep in mind: sometimes the differences between two nations and languages are close enough that you don't have to worry.
Targeting by language in my experience 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 is not the main objective.
Although, if your goal is a successful SEO or PPC strategy, targeting by country does have more benefits then targeting by language. Targeting by country is true localization, competition is reduced and crucial trust is gained. Yes, 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 a local competitor.
This column was originally published in SES Magazine in July 2010.
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Michael Bonfils is the international managing director of SEM International, specializing in providing international-multilingual search engine marketing management services for global advertising agencies, search engine marketing, and Fortune 1000 firms. Michael is a contributor to national publications and events such as Search Engine Watch, Witi, and Webmasterworld's Pubcon. Previously, he founded a contextual/behavioral advertising agency, which he sold in 2004. He sits on the board of directors for many organizations, including the TechBiz Connection.
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