Optimizing for International Search Engines

English may not be as universal as Americans would like to believe. I read recently that in fact only 47.5 percent of Web users speak English as a primary language. Yet, 56 percent of traffic to U.S. Web sites comes from international visitors.

So what does this have to do with search engine optimization (SEO)? Well, we know that non-English-speaking populations prefer to be addressed in their native languages, even if they understand English. And when it comes to search engines, these people are more likely to use search engines in their own language. So it’s becoming increasingly important to optimize your site for non-U.S. search engines and get listed in the top non-U.S. search engines and directories. That is, if you’re after some of that international traffic.

Fortunately, many people in other countries have learned to search the Internet using American-based engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Lycos. So you can use regular SEO techniques, adjusting keywords for the various languages in your target market.

The best place to start is with Open Directory Project (ODP), because you can find all sorts of non-American directories there. ODP also has many regional sites, such as those for Germany, France, and Japan.

But you don’t want to ignore the local search engines. They wield a lot more power than we’d like to admit.

The French Connection

For instance, in France, people think of Voila in the way Americans think of Google — as essential (thanks, Dana). Your next best bet is Yahoo France, where the over 147 million French speakers spread over 37 countries can get Mon Yahoo (start page), Yahoo Courrier (email), Yahoo Tchatche (chat), and everything else.

Voila and Yahoo France are the two biggest search sites in France, both offering the usual portal services. A partial list of French search engines can be found here, including MSN France. The French connection is developing at super speed, so there’s a lot of buying power for American products and services. Get listed in France, and translate your site. It will pay off.

German “Engine-ering”

The “in” search engines in Germany are Aladin, Fireball, and WEB.DE, which also provide free email and other services. These are widely used for searches throughout German-speaking areas, including parts of Switzerland.

Many American search engines have German indices, such as AltaVista Germany, Excite Deutschland, Lycos Germany, msn.de, and Yahoo Deutschland, to name a few. A sampling of German search engines is listed here.

Germany and the U.K. dominate Europe in terms of Internet access, with Germany, the U.K., Italy, and France together accounting for two-thirds of European households that are wired with Internet access. Germany reported the greatest increase in the number of households with Internet access in the first quarter of 2001 according to Nielsen//NetRatings (June 2001).

Searching Far (East) and Near

In Japan, you’ll need to optimize for DragonField, goo, and NTT Communications’s OCN. Again, many American search engines have Japanese indices, such as Excite Japan, Google Japan, Lycos Japan, MSN Japan, and Yahoo Japan. You’ll find a list of the top Japanese search engines, and an online Japanese-English dictionary that allows queries to Japanese search engines, here.

One-third of the households in the Asia-Pacific area have Internet access via home PCs. But if you want to reach Japanese consumers, you’ll want to make your site wireless friendly. In Japan, people spend a lot of time commuting on trains from which they like to access the Web and read email on wireless devices. You’ll want to ensure your content is amenable to parsing so the new Web services that parse Web content for mobile phone users can extract vital data, convert it to WML (wireless markup language) and send it to all those commuters and others.

Non-U.S. Search Engines Are Different

Many of the non-U.S. search engine databases are still compiled manually rather than by robot engines and software. So it’s a good idea to hand-submit your site to the leading local search engines. It’s best to use a native speaker for these submissions.

Also be aware that it may take longer for these submissions to get indexed than it does in the U.S., especially now that it’s summer. In Europe, most people are on vacation during the months of July and August. So it could take a while to get listed if you submit during those months.

At present, you won’t find many pay-for-performance search engines like GoTo.com in the non-English-speaking countries. But it probably won’t take long. A pay-per-click search engine, Godado.com, serving Italy, France, and the U.K., launched recently. The network reports that it delivered more than 5 million page views per month, with 600,000 unique visitors in May.

A Couple of Content Optimization Tips

It’s a good idea to invest in software that identifies the country your visitors are coming from, then automatically serves up a home page in that language with a text link to secondary language choices.

Translate at least three to five pages of your site for each non-English-speaking country in your target market. This is both for the convenience of your visitors and for SEO purposes. It used to be that you could get by with translating just one page, but you need more now to get indexed by the robot engines.

Bottom line: With a little extra effort in optimizing your site for international search engines, you can boost traffic and profitability.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains