Local Search and Its Importance to Grow Search Environment in Southeast Asia

In an ever challenging and diverse South East Asia continent, it has been a difficult question to answer by marketers – do people actually search in local languages?

The answer lies in trivial human behavior and the history of the way languages have been used across markets, with intrinsic elements of accents, different meanings, or even abbreviations. Take for example – where India calls a mobile phone a “cellphone,” Singaporeans term is “hand-phone,” and Indonesian’s term is “phone.” I needn’t state more. (You can also use the Global Market Finder by Google to get a more numeric sense of local language influence.)

However, over multitudes of campaigns and across categories from my agency, I’ve come to the following conclusion as to where to use local languages and where not when targeting campaigns in South East Asia; and it differs by industry vertical. I’ve left out B2B from this list – as in most countries, English is the business language; and B2B companies do not invest in local versions of their websites; unless it is in Chinese.

Malaysia: A predominant English speaking country and the national language of Malay; Malaysians search in a mix of English and Malay when online. Here is how the split looks like when they are searching:

Bank/Finance Consumer Automobile Travel Technology
English 80% 50% 70% 90% 90%
Malay 20% 50% 30% 10% 10%

Thailand: Has a very strong history and very rich culture; which promotes to converse in Thai. While the younger generation is comfortable talking both in English and Thai; the traditionalists still search in Thai; with a mix of English.

Bank/Finance Consumer Automobile Travel Technology
English 70% 60% 60% 80% 60%
Thai 30% 40% 40% 20% 40%

Indonesia: A small island with a sizable online population and the fastest growing mobile market. This country speaks Bahasa and English. Interestingly, users also search in local languages while searching on their mobile; though difficult to assimilate the difference in volume. However, let’s look at this market:

Bank/Finance Consumer Automobile Travel Technology
English 60% 40% 50% 80% 60%
Bahasa 40% 60% 50% 20% 40%

Vietnam: The smallest of all the Southeast Asia countries and developing also. This country has the lowest search volume at the moment, but is showing strong growth in search volumes year-on-year. Since the country is slowly getting up to speed, it is still very local:

Bank/Finance Consumer Automobile Travel Technology
English 70% 30% 60% 90% 60%
Vietnamese 30% 70% 40% 10% 40%

Philippines: This is the biggest country on Facebook, and also very active on the search landscape. The country is fast in grasping English as a language and no wonder that most of the searches in this market are predominantly in English:

Bank/Finance Consumer Automobile Travel Technology
English 90% 70% 90% 100% 95%
Filipino 10% 30% 10% 5%

Whether or not you want to set up a local language search campaign is entirely up to you and the web content you have. If your website is not localized, do not venture into running local ads – as it leaves the users very unhappy and you’ll see a surge of traffic with a high exit rate; especially in markets like Thailand and Vietnam. You can even analyze your website traffic to see if people in these countries are reaching your website via local publishers. It’ll give you a strong case to invest or not to invest in a local version of your website.

The next more evident question becomes – what about cost per click (CPC). Are they higher than English keywords? The answer to that is again very market dependent and how many advertisers are actually buying in local languages. However, as a guideline, we’ve seen in general the local language keywords work out to be cheaper by 10 to 30 percent as compared to the English language keywords. Drive higher CTRs and let the Google Quality Score magic take over.

Marketers believe – speak the language the customer understands and your results will show. And, so is the case in Southeast Asia.

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