The Power of Cultural Awareness in International SEO
There are a lot of misinterpretations out there when it comes to International SEO. It seems like as long as you’ve implemented Hrefs lang correctly, translated your keywords from your source to your target, and adjusted a website from a technical standpoint, you are all covered and ready to expand internationally. The truth is that today, International SEO cannot be limited to these things, and it involves taking into account way more elements and high-level strategic thinking to make it or break it. I’m not going to bother you with another piece of content about how to make sure that your website meets the essential requirement to be fully internationalized; there are a plethora of articles about Hrefs lang, keywords’ research in multiple languages and every single aspect to consider when working in International SEO.
I want to highlight a different yet necessary approach: cultural SEO.
What is International SEO
Let me start from the basics: what is International SEO? And let’s keep it simple:
International SEO means optimizing a website so that search engines can quickly identify which countries you’re targeting and what language(s) you use to attract people from those countries who speak that specific language. It can be divided into two distinct segments:
- Multiregional SEO: it targets different regions, not necessarily speaking different languages (think Australia and UK)
- Multilingual SEO: it targets different languages and, when possible, their variations based on the region (think Spain and Mexico).
Your goal with International SEO is to reach people interested in your products or services in their specific language or region.
Easy, isn’t it? Hmmm, not that easy…
The Problem with International SEO
On a fundamental (yet very well-needed) level, there are a few basic things to do when you want your website to target the right users in a different language and region from your main website (and I’m oversimplifying here!): language targeting, hreflang tags, URL structures and the use of a given language (you want to expand into South Korea, you need to use Korean on your website).
Is that enough? I’m afraid to be the bearer of bad news: no, it’s not enough. In today’s world, the difference between a company and another is how they speak to their customers from the first interaction on search engines until the purchase and retention phase.
The key to succeeding internationally is revisiting your strategy: brands should start not competing against competitors but against their customers’ last best experience. And even if it doesn’t seem so related, that’s when SEO comes into play.
Long are gone when SEO only served as an entry point for people coming from search engines, and long are gone when SEO was only measured in terms of traffic. Nowadays, SEO needs to bring value to a company (whatever the definition of value is), and to do so not only has to attract qualified people, but it also needs to get them to do something instead of leaving.
Let me present you with three different scenarios to clarify my point further:
1. A French-Canadian website wanting to expand to France
Your French-Canadian website wants to expand into France and wants to use SEO to make it happen. It all sounds easy and highly feasible. Make a copy of the website, implement language and country targeting, use hreflang tags, and change the URL accordingly, and you’re done. Both countries speak the same language. What’s the issue there? You’re lucky and have a robust website, so Google immediately notices and ranks the FR version. Happy days!
I’m a user from France, and I stumbled upon your website while searching on Google. The minute I start browsing, I notice that you use words I don’t recognize, unfamiliar colors, and currency that doesn’t work for me. What’s my reaction? I leave, and I look for something else.
2. A US-based company wanting to start selling in Spain
Your US-based company wants to start selling in Spain and relies on SEO to grow organically. Same as above: you know it can be challenging, but when you’re done with the technical stuff and translating the most important keywords, you’re sure success is around the corner. On top of this, you already have the Mexican version available, so it’s only a matter of changing the URL. Your website starts to rank, but, surprise, it doesn’t reach out to the people it was supposed to target, the bounce rate is crazily high, your sales are not improving, and even if your traffic is improving weekly, your conversions aren’t. Hence, your SEO efforts are useless.
I’m a user from Spain, and I am searching for something on Google. Your website appears on my SERP during one of my searches (you’re good, and your .es domain gets indexed on Google.es without hesitation), but I move over without clicking. Why? You’ve used the word “computadora” instead of “ordenador”, and I rationally conclude that you’re targeting Mexican users, not users from Spain. So, you’re not the right fit for me, and even if your website has the .es extension, “Adios, no way, Jose” is my answer to you.
3. An American website wanting to expand to Italy
Your American website wants to expand into the Italian market. SEO is one of the ways to go. You are confident with your technical implementation, the URL, and the terms/pages you’ve translated, so you think you’re done. You have a powerful .com website, and you’re sure this allows the regional subfolder to rank pretty well immediately. Weeks and months pass, and your Italian webpage doesn’t rank well for the keywords it should rank for. Traffic is not growing, and neither are sales. On top of this, SEO expectations are not met.
I’m an Italian user, and since language targeting was implemented correctly, Google served me the Italian version of a page following my search. I started browsing, and I noticed that the page had been machine-translated. It uses a non-idiomatic language mixed with English, keywords are wrong and scattered here and there, and there are also non-sensical terms such as “azione” [action] instead of “offerta special” [special offer] to point out to a special offer. I get pissed because you’re butchering my language and culture, mixing it with automatic and pointless translations and terms from Swiss-Italian, but I’m also concerned about your company’s credibility. Result? I’m leaving, and (since I’m pretty picky) next time I see you on the SERP, I won’t click anymore.
Can you see the pattern here? There was a fundamental error in the 3 cases:
This is why International SEO is more than just hreflang: to be successful in international SEO, you need to cater to the cultural differences in each language or country you want to provide your solution.
That’s Amazon.ca compared to Amazon.fr: the taxonomy varies country by country, and even if they sell the same products, they address the users based on their specific language.
They know that “Santé et Soins personnel” only works in French-Canadian while in France people use “Santé et produits d’hygiène”. Even if one term may have low volumes, the right solution here is to use the most appropriate country-level approach.
I know you’re thinking about the (in)famous search intent, but this is only a part of the game.
Search intent comes into play and has a huge impact when you know what is culturally appropriate or not for a given language. Otherwise, checking the search intent of a search term can result in a useless and robotic exercise.
Adopting a cultural approach when working on International SEO is key to success.
Cultural SEO is a Successful SEO
Cultural SEO means understanding how people search, their habits concerning web usage, what idioms they use, and what’s inappropriate.
People search differently depending on where they live and their culture. For ages, we have thought that their culture influenced consumer behavior only concerning environmentally sensitive products, the leading being food; hence, companies have started to create food products that match a country’s taste (one example is Chinese food, which it’s been wholly distorted to meet the needs of non-Chinese people in countries other than China).
We now know that cultural biases affect people’s search and worldwide expectations when searching for something.
This includes, and is not limited to:
- Using singular vs. plural
- Using infinite vs. present tense (plural or singular)
- Searching for a specific type of content (e.g., reviews) or generic ones when looking to buy something
- Evaluating how strong a brand is before clicking on a result
- Searching for time-sensitive content or only for evergreen content
- Searching for images or texts based on the context
and so on.
If you think that Google and other search engines are smart, so there’s no need for you to get crazy about the things above, you’re making a great mistake: Google can serve your content to the users you want to reach out even if you don’t understand their search habits. Still, users can (and most often do!) skip your page in the search results if it doesn’t fit what they expected to find.
What do I mean by this? Let me be explicit with a very trivial example:
If Italian users search for Pizza on Google, they want to see this:
So you can use the right keyword, nail the title, and even rank high on Google, but if you cannot deliver the expected result, you will lose your user, probably for good.
A 2014 study analyzed the influence of cultural values and the effect of local keywords in increasing Website visibility in Jordan by using a statistical analysis method; according to the results, social culture keywords improve website visibility in search engines.
Imagine a situation like this for an Italian user:
Query: Mangiare economico a Parigi (eating in Paris)
SERP: Mangia a Parigi in Maniera Economica (translated from the EN version of the website: eat in Paris cheap).
The two verbs carry different meanings:
- Mangiare (To eat) is about asking for generic pieces of advice
- Mangia (You eat) suggests specific advice about a particular place.
Knowing why Italians are searching in a certain way ensures you target the right users with the right keywords if you don’t stop at translating from your source language.
Shouldn’t we analyze the search intent? Not in this case, since both these two verbs have an “informative” search intent (the user wants to eat in Paris and they’re looking for information on the best place/places), and search intent would not be able to address this concern.
Does this mean analyzing the search intent is insufficient when defining an international SEO strategy? It does, and it doesn’t. If you use tools to analyze search intent, it won’t almost always be enough. Don’t get me wrong: tools help identify gaps and issues, but languages are too complex to be analyzed superficially. It’s perilous to oversimplify cultures too much, and there are so many nuances to understand that a tool won’t ever be able to pick, one being the “tone of voice” when searching.
At the same time, it’s hazardous to assume that the two terms have a similar meaning and quickly translate from your source to your target.
If a mistake should not be made in International SEO, it is translating content verbatim. The translation may be technically correct, but there is always the possibility that the context or connotation is not. In our case, “eat in Paris cheap” has been translated verbatim, perhaps also has a good search volume to justify the translation, but this resulted in a title that didn’t capture the topic, the tone of voice, or the hidden request from the user. Hence, it made users not want to click. When this happens, companies lose resources and don’t get any results.
On top of this, we now know that specific terms, even if widespread, contribute to creating stereotypes and cultural/gender gaps; hence, even if their search volume is higher because of cultural behaviors, they should be avoided.
One example? Let me simplify it by using Italian once again:
- Gay Pride is searched 13.000 times every month in Italy;
- Pride is searched 14.000 times every month in Italy
Pride is much more complex than Gay Pride, so we may be tempted to go for the latter since the volume is almost equal.
The truth is using Gay Pride is considered discriminatory linguistically in Italian since it doesn’t include the whole LGBT community; on the other side, Pride is the term to choose to be inclusive.
If we go for Gay Pride, we will reiterate stereotypes and demonstrate we don’t know anything about the country we’re going to tackle and its culture.
Does this matter for SEO purposes? It does if we start considering SEO not just as a vehicle to lure people onto a page but as a way to advocate and allow the business to penetrate the market and do business in a given country in an organic and scalable way.
International SEO is more than keywords
International SEO isn’t just about keywords and content, although they play a massive role. It’s also about the imagery and visuals, the position of elements on a page, the tone of voice, and the colors: online content must resonate with the culture you speak to. Do you think this is not about SEO? Think twice: let’s say you bring someone into your page thanks to a fantastic title, unique content, and a strong domain. This someone runs away as soon as they land on your page. What benefit has your SEO strategy brought to your company or client?
Imagine a situation like this:
Your page about “gaseosa” (soda) in Spanish ranks high on Google, so you start seeing people searching for “gaseosa” landing on your website. What a glorious moment! Soon you discover that they all leave seconds after entering, and this profoundly affects your SEO performances (including your KPIs). You spend hours trying to understand what is wrong with the page since everything is in order from an SEO standpoint, and the content is to die for.
Everything except the page’s main image: the image depicts a bottle of “gaseosa” but uses the word “soda” instead of the Spanish one. On top of this, the same image uses visuals far away from the universe the page wants to reach, showing people playing American football and refreshing with soda.
SEO has brought the right people into the page, but the page failed to serve the users. As a result, people left, and didn’t engage with the page and the company, and a percentage of them may also have perceived the company as unreliable.
What happens to Procter and Gamble Co. explains this better than any word (note: this example is from traditional advertising, but it applies perfectly to the online world and to organic traffic).
Years ago, Procter and Gamble Co. tried to enter the Japanese market to sell Pampers disposable diapers. They worked fully on the Japanese copy to adapt the language and use the right terms but completely discarded the visual. They used the image of a stork delivering disposable diapers to a household. The commercial was badly received, and sales didn’t increase. The reason was easy to spot: the visual was far from what Japanese people expected, and they didn’t know the reference the ad was pointing out. Storks delivering babies do not exist in Japan. Instead, according to Japanese folklore, peaches, not storks, bring the babies.
Doesn’t it sound familiar to what happens in SEO today?
Considering the impact of culture and cultural habits when working in International SEO is crucial, and it goes beyond the classical idea of SEO as a mere vehicle for traffic. It works only if we start seeing SEO as a way to engage with users more empathetically, showing them that we care about their search habits and simultaneously addressing concerns regarding biases and stereotypes.
I’ve fully integrated Cultural SEO into my multilingual SEO strategy to build a more integrated approach that considers the whole spectrum with a sole goal: conversions.
International SEO is all about offering your target audience a pleasant experience on your site and combines doing SEO as you’re used to while reflecting cultural differences.
Your goal should always be to make your target feel at home so they will convert and become your first advocates.