24/11/2010

By Guy Gilpin, former ad man, co-founder and MD of Mother Tongue Writers

SEO is a laborious and, to be frank, rather tedious task. So it’s lucky that once you have SE-optimized your website in English, you can just have it translated without the need to repeat all that effort in foreign languages, right?

Unfortunately, no. Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as “what gets lost in translation” could equally apply to SEO. It is sadly not possible to pre-optimize your web copy before translation — it has to be re-optimized as part of the translation process.

First and foremost, SEO is about the democratic use of language. What matters is not how the advertiser likes to talk about its products, but how customers actually talk about them. So when producing foreign versions, the trick is not to find the words that most closely correspond to the English original, but the words most commonly used by the target audience in the countries in question.

Our experience of working on a major SEO project for budget airline EasyJet suggests that from a translation point of view, search terms fall into three broad categories — directly translatable, freely translatable and non-translatable.

Firstly, there are terms that have direct equivalents in the target language that are equally widely used as search terms. So where English web users will Google “flights”, French users search for “vols”. The word means the same thing and is used in the same way. The world would be a simpler place if all terms were like this! (Although in fact, even here, things are not as simple as they look. Only once we have tested the seemingly obvious translation to verify is indeed widely searched for, by actual users in relevant contexts, can we confirm that directly translatable terms fall into this category.)

Secondly, there are terms that can be translated in a number of ways. Here the challenge is to think of all the possibilities, so we can test them to see which ones are actually searched for. An example is the seemingly straightforward “cheap flights”. With typical Gallic contrariness, there is in fact no French word for “cheap”, so various different wordings have to be tried — “vols pas chers” (not-expensive flights”), “vols bon marché” (“good-bargain flights”), “vols à bas prix” (“flights at low price”), “vols a petit prix” (“flights at small price”) to name but a few. None of these expressions sounds a likely search term when rendered back in English, but all of them are viable options in French. Much to the chagrin of the guardians of French linguistic purity, even Anglophone borrowings such as “discount” and “lowcost” also turn out to be worthy of investigation.

Moreover, finding the most appropriate translation(s) is only the first stage. They then have to be optimized syntactically for a search context, where people tend to use shorthand or elided forms. So whereas “cheapest flights” would be “vols les moins chers”, in reality French web surfers would never use the article “les”, they would just search for “vols moins chers”. Similarly, while “vols à bas prix” (“flights at low price”) is the grammatically correct expression, a far more common search term would be just “vols bas prix” (“flights low price”).

Finally, the third category is terms for which there is no relevant equivalent in the target language. For example, “flight deals” is a high-ranking search term among budget airline customers in English, but the word “deal” in the sense of “arrangement” does not translate naturally into French. While an equivalent could be found, it is not something that would French people would say, and therefore not something they would search for.

However, conversely, there may well exist some terms that do not appear in the list of most popular searches in English, but would be very relevant in the target language — what Donald Rumsfeld would call “unknown unknowns”. An example from the EasyJet project of such a term would be “vols secs”. Literally this translates as “dry flights”, but it has nothing to do with alcohol-free travel (as if a budget airline would pass up the chance to sell you four-euro tins of lager!), it means flights that are sold on their own without accommodation, car hire, travel insurance etc. You could never find these through a pure translation process, but that does not mean they are any less useful for generating traffic. Indeed, they may be more useful than many translated terms.

And of course, identifying the most profitable search terms is not an end in itself. These terms are merely the raw materials, and a skilled copywriter is needed to assemble them into a convincing message in the foreign language. SEO copywriting is hard work in any language — but if you can find the right way to tackle it, then it’s much more likely that potential customers will find you.


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