The Political Role of Multilingual SEO In Fighting/Amplifying Issues

Author: Veruska Anconitano, Multilingual SEO & Globalization ConsultantAuthor information
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Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a Multilingual SEO and Globalization Consultant with 24 years of expertise working with brands wanting to enter non-English speaking markets.
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Multilingual SEO is more than just a tool for boosting website visibility; it’s a powerful way to address cultural, social, and political issues across different countries.

While many see it as a purely transactional process, looking at Multilingual SEO through the lenses of the digital divide, inclusivity, sociolinguistics, and sociology is a good way to understand its potential to engage with important societal matters meaningfully.

Understanding the unique characteristics of each country and its people allows multilingual SEO to drive transformation and deliver tangible returns for businesses while fostering a closer connection with users.

In today’s era of misinformation, being socially, politically, and culturally aware as a brand is crucial. Every search query reflects not only a quest for knowledge but also users’ diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Multilingual SEO goes beyond mere translation; it’s about ensuring that content resonates with and respects its audience’s social, political, and cultural nuances.

This article delves into the role of multilingual SEO in challenging biases and stereotypes, offering practical examples and strategies to help you view it not just as a transactional tool but as a means of genuinely engaging with people in the countries you aim to reach.

Just a heads up: like everything on this site, this article is about understanding the markets you’re diving into. So, if you’re doing multilingual SEO without knowing the languages and, most of all, the cultures (meaning societal issues, political issues, people’s search behaviors, etc.) you’re dealing with, these approaches might not be your cup of tea.

A Political View Of Multilingual SEO

Many times in my articles and speeches, I’ve mentioned that cultural nuances significantly impact user engagement and search visibility. For instance, directly translating a keyword might seem fitting, but it could unintentionally offend or misrepresent cultural values.

Take the English term “gift,” which translates to “regalo” in Italian. While “regalo” generally means a present or gift, in certain contexts in Italian, it can also mean “bribe.” Understanding context and cultural awareness in keyword selection and content optimization is crucial to avoid issues that can be difficult to adjust.

However, this issue extends beyond just translation versus localization. It’s also, if not mostly, about how SEO can drive change or maintain the status quo.

Consider this:

When people use a search engine, they click on a result based on factors like brand familiarity, how closely the topic aligns with their interests and needs, and the values the brand appears to share. They first interact with the content we, SEO professionals, make visible. Therefore, we must ensure that our choice of terms and words doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes, create new biases, or reinforce outdated viewpoints.

We need to be aware of the potential broader implications of the most searched terms. We also need to understand the social context in which these terms are used and searched, ensuring our work contributes positively to social issues.

An extreme example from France puts this into perspective, urging us to think of SEO as more than just a checklist for visibility on Google.

One of France’s most notable recent debates involved the term “Mademoiselle.” Traditionally, “Mademoiselle” referred to an unmarried woman, while “Madame” was used for a married woman or a woman whose marital status was unclear but demanded a more respectful and mature address. This distinction was customary in formal and administrative contexts in France. Over time, social activists argued that distinguishing women by marital status was outdated and discriminatory, noting that no such distinction existed for men, who were always referred to as “Monsieur,” regardless of marital status. They contended that “Mademoiselle” forced women to disclose their marital status, potentially leading to judgment or differential treatment.

In response to these criticisms, in 2012, the French government banned the use of “Mademoiselle” in official documents. This promoted gender equality by eliminating the need for women to state their marital status in administrative forms, thus aligning the treatment of men and women.

Mademoiselle term removed in France

Fast-forward. Imagine you’re tasked with managing SEO for a brand in the French market but unaware of the “Mademoiselle” controversy. Without realizing the implications, you start using the term in your content. Although your pages begin to rank well, they fail to convert. You’re puzzled until you discover why “Mademoiselle” is controversial and context-sensitive. Its usage has inadvertently positioned your brand unfavorably, alienating potential customers who view the term as outdated or inappropriate.

Our chosen words and phrases reflect our attitudes toward people, places, contexts, social issues, and politics. They can act as catalysts for change or perpetuate existing biases. Multilingual SEO can play a big part in how brands are perceived and help shape a more equitable digital society.

Why Multilingual SEO Should Be Viewed as a Social Act

There are compelling reasons to view multilingual SEO as a social act, both in terms of brand reputation and user relationships:

  • Loss of Trust: When brands appear culturally insensitive or disregard diverse perspectives, they risk losing user trust. Such cultural missteps can damage a brand’s reputation, decreasing credibility among target audiences. They can be minimized by understanding the role of globalization and internationalization before expanding.
  • Negative Publicity: Cultural insensitivity can lead to public relations crises, generating negative publicity and backlash across social media platforms. Brands may face boycotts or widespread criticism, reflecting poorly on their public image.
  • Decreased User Engagement: Insensitivity to cultural nuances can alienate users, reducing their willingness to engage with a brand’s content or products. This alienation can negatively affect conversion rates and limit the potential for meaningful customer relationships.

Beyond these factors, we also need to consider the value of Multilingual SEO as a channel.

Treating Multilingual SEO merely as a transactional channel to boost traffic might seem adequate, but this approach only scratches the surface of its potential.

The true essence and value of Multilingual SEO lie in its ability to resonate on a cultural level. By understanding and addressing an audience’s specific needs at a given time, which are deeply rooted in their cultural background, location, and circumstances, SEO can transform from a mere traffic-driving tool into a powerful tool for building deeper connections.

This strategic approach allows Multilingual SEO to define an omnichannel strategy that transcends traditional search engine boundaries. It fosters lasting relationships between brands and their audiences, expanding beyond mere Google search results and engaging users more meaningfully. This perspective ensures that Multilingual SEO efforts are about visibility, relevance, and resonance and do not rely solely on search traffic.

When Multilingual SEO Meets Sociology And Sociolinguistics

Its potential impact becomes evident when we view SEO through a sociological and sociolinguistics lens. To ensure this impact is both recognized and valuable, several key practices should be implemented:

  • Cultural Research: Conduct thorough research into the cultural norms, values, and current discussions relevant to each target language’s keywords or topics. Understanding the socio-cultural dynamics of each market will inform better language choices and content adaptation strategies, making your SEO efforts more relevant and respectful. Pair the cultural research with market research to get the full picture.
  • Contextualization: Customize content to mirror local cultural norms and expectations. Incorporate cultural references, traditions, and holidays that resonate with the target audience. This helps to establish meaningful connections and significantly boosts user engagement.
  • Linguistic Nuances: Pay meticulous attention to linguistic details, including gendered language forms, idiomatic expressions, and cultural references. Choose language variations that engage your target audience while avoiding stereotypes or offensive language.
  • Inclusive Language: Focus on inclusive language practices that challenge traditional gender norms and promote diversity. Use gender-neutral terms where possible to avoid perpetuating outdated stereotypes and biases.
  • Understanding Deep User Intent: Collaborate with local market research experts and analysts to understand the social, political, and cultural contexts that influence search behaviors in each specific market. This insight helps tailor your SEO strategy to better meet the real needs of users.
  • Regional Variations: Embrace regional dialects and colloquialisms to connect more personally with local audiences. Using language variants that reflect regional preferences and conventions can significantly enhance the authenticity of your content and deepen user engagement.
  • Feedback Loops: Set up feedback mechanisms with local users to continuously refine language choices and adapt content based on their responses. Monitor user engagement metrics and tweak your content strategies to optimize performance in various markets.

Inclusive Multilingual SEO In The German Market

In German, “Studenten” traditionally refers to male students, while “Studentinnen” is used for female students. However, this binary language excludes non-binary and gender-nonconforming individuals. To address this, “Studierende” has emerged as a gender-neutral alternative for all students, regardless of gender identity.

Businesses and educational institutions can promote inclusivity and equity by incorporating the keyword “Studierende” into a German-language SEO strategy. This linguistic adaptation acknowledges the diverse identities within student populations and fosters a more inclusive online environment.

The impact of this choice is easy to spot:

  • Inclusivity: Using “Studierende” in SEO practices ensures that all students, regardless of gender identity, feel represented and included in digital content.
  • Accessibility: By adopting gender-neutral language, businesses and educational institutions make their online resources more accessible and relatable to a diverse audience.
  • Advocacy: Normalizing “Studierende” supports broader advocacy efforts for gender inclusivity and equality in education, contributing to positive social change.

This approach moves away from the traditional keywords-based SEO strategy and embraces a more holistic and inclusive approach to digital marketing, regardless of keywords and volumes:

Inclusive Multilingual SEO In The Italian Market

In Italian, “segretario” and “segretaria” respectively translate to “secretary” in English. While “segretario” is the masculine form, “segretaria” is the feminine form. These terms have traditionally reinforced gender stereotypes by associating secretarial work with women.

When working in SEO for the Italian market, it’s always a good move to understand the implications of certain terms to make the right choice:

  • “Segretario” (Secretary) – Historically, “segretario” has been used to describe higher-status men, such as men involved in political parties.
  • “Segretaria” (Female Secretary) – Conversely, “segretaria” refers to female secretaries, perpetuating the stereotype that women primarily perform secretarial work.

And volumes perpetuate this idea:

What if our SEO strategy incorporates both gender-specific and gender-neutral terms? Doing so can disrupt traditional gender stereotypes and advance inclusivity in the workplace. This change in language use recognizes and values the diverse talents and abilities of individuals, irrespective of their gender. Ultimately, it contributes to creating a fairer and more welcoming work environment.

Multilingual SEO As A Force Of Change

Understanding the political, social, and cultural nuances behind language choices is essential for implementing multilingual SEO effectively.

By embracing inclusive language practices that challenge traditional gender norms and promote diversity, businesses can avoid reinforcing cultural stereotypes through SEO strategies.

Carefully choosing keywords that respect and reflect a wide array of cultural perspectives allows businesses to use multilingual SEO not just as a tool for boosting traffic and conversions but also as a means to foster inclusivity and address social biases.

SEO is more than just a vehicle for increasing online organic visibility. When applied with consideration for its broader implications, it enables businesses to engage actively with important cultural discussions while creating an omnichannel strategy that resonates across multiple channels. In return, users are drawn to search results and content that resonate on a personal and relevant level.

Through thoughtful multilingual SEO, businesses can dismantle stereotypes, bridge cultural gaps, and enhance inclusivity. This strategic approach improves a brand’s visibility and helps cultivate a more empathetic and interconnected community.

Do you care about inclusivity in your working and daily interactions?
Check out InclusivitEasy, our tool for helping individuals and organizations create more inclusive content, regardless of their media.
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Interesting read on the political role of language:

  • Li, X., & Leckenby, J. (2018). The importance of cultural sensitivity in international marketing. Journal of International Marketing, 26(4), 16-20.
  • Rendleman, D., & Dziuban, C. (2015). The digital divide: Cultural inclusion/exclusion. EDUCAUSE Review.
  • Hoskins, J., & O’Loughlin, B. (2010). Global television and the shaping of world politics: CNN, telediplomacy, and foreign policy. Journal of Communication, 50(1), 26-47.
  • Zhang, Z., & Wang, X. (2018). The influence of cultural differences on social media usage: A comparative study of China and the United States. Journal of Global Marketing, 31(1), 38-49.
  • Darroch, J., & Aitchison, P. (2015). Culturally inclusive marketing: A social exchange theory perspective. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(3-4), 354-374.
  • Douglas, S. P., & Craig, C. S. (2007). Collaborative and iterative translation: An alternative approach to back translation. Journal of International Marketing, 15(1), 30-43.
  • Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2004). Language and identity. In A. Duranti (Ed.), A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology (pp. 369-394). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. Harlow, Longman.
  • Bucholtz, M. (2003). Sociolinguistic nostalgia and the authentication of identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7(3), 398-416.
  • Yucel, C., & Sen, S. (2016). The role of culture in international marketing: A comprehensive review of global marketing strategies. Procedia Economics and Finance, 39, 682-686.
  • Shin, H., & Kang, J. (2016). The effects of cultural adaptation on cross-cultural website evaluation: A comparison of American and Korean online consumers. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 876-886.
  • Peterson, R. A., & Jolibert, A. J. (1995). A meta-analysis of country-of-origin effects. Journal of International Business Studies, 26(4), 883-900.
  • Singh, N., & Pereira, A. (2018). The challenges of translating culturally sensitive marketing material. The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 26(1-2), 28-42.
  • Shamma, H. M., & Vasalou, A. (2010). Managing cultural diversity in virtual teams. Research in Interactive Design, 1(1), 13-24.
  • Singh, J., & Tanniru, M. (2015). Multicultural teams: A review and future directions. Global Business and Organizational Excellence, 34(5), 65-76.
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