SEO for Multilingual Marketing

Christian Arno

English may be the so-called lingua franca of the World Wide Web, but consider this: three-quarters of the world’s population speaks no English whatsoever. Online, over 460 million internet users communicate in English. Yet there are over 1.5 billion internet users across the globe, which means that over a billion web users claim a language other than English as their native tongue. That’s a lot of people. The Web is a linguistic labyrinth and the need for businesses to talk to customers in their own language can’t be overstated.

There’s a cacophony of cultural complexities that must be considered before localizing a web site’s content for international markets. With this in mind, businesses that want to go global need to think local.

World Languages

There are over 6,000 languages spoken across the globe. However, many of these are spoken only in small pockets in localized regions. Indeed, 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 4% of the world’s population, while 90% lack any real representation on the Internet.

So, from an online marketer’s perspective, there’s no need to have a web site anywhere near 6,000 languages.

However, if we look at the European Union (EU) alone, there are 23 official languages spoken in the 27 member states. English is the most widely spoken, with over half the EU population speaking it to some degree. From a native-speaking perspective, almost a fifth of Europeans claim German as their mother tongue. English, Italian, and French have roughly the same amount of native speakers as each other, followed closely by Spanish.

Figure 1. Top five European languages

Top five European languages


Globally, Asia accounts for over 40% of the world’s internet users, while China has 30% more internet users than the US. Research has also shown that over half of all consumers only buy from web sites in their own language.

Distinctive Dialects

When targeting international markets online, it’s important to be wary of the differences within languages too, that is, dialects. The contrast between, say, French and German is fairly obvious, even to those who speak neither language. But the distinction between the French language spoken in France, and the French in Canada, or across Switzerland and Belgium is less obvious. There are, however, some key differences.

For example, Canadian French (Québécois) tends to literally translate English terms into French, rather than importing English terms directly as Anglicisms. So the word “weekend,” for example, is fin de semaine (which translates literally as “end of the week”). But in standard French, the word is simply le weekend.

There are many examples in French-speaking Europe that demonstrate some of the nuances between dialects, some of which are outlined in Figure 2, “Some differences across French dialects”.

Figure 2. Some differences across French dialects

Some differences across French dialects


The same applies to other language dialects. Take Spanish, for example. In Spain, the word carro is a cart that you push or pull to transport items; in Latin America, it’s a car to drive around in. Alternatively, a car in Spain is called a coche, while a coche in Latin America is a baby stroller.

Besides English, the main European languages on the Internet are German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, although the latter two are boosted considerably due to their proliferation in the Americas.

Although English is the leading language of the Web from a content perspective, over half of all Google searches are in other languages. This figure looks set to grow, with the Internet population of emerging markets such as Russia and China increasing faster than in Western markets. Figure 3, “Top 10 languages spoken by global internet users” shows the distribution of the top 10 languages spoken by internet users around the world.

Figure 3. Top 10 languages spoken by global internet users

Top 10 languages spoken by global internet users


SEO, Localization, and the Web

Online marketing is one of the most potent tools available to modern business. It connects companies to customers and helps build mutually beneficial business relationships between the buyers and sellers of the world.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a pivotal part of many businesses’ online marketing strategies. A study by the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA) indicated that two-thirds of marketers in Europe were increasing their SEO resources this year. Moreover, 94% of European marketers plan to increase their total internet advertising spend in 2010.

Figure 4. Online marketing methods (2009)

Online marketing methods (2009)


However, domestic markets are just one part of the equation. Launching fully localized and optimized foreign language web sites are another problem altogether. It goes without saying that you should always use professional translators when converting your English text for international markets, but it’s important that you refrain from translating your keywords from English. And here’s why: a correct dictionary translation of a keyword may be substantially different from what people use to search for products or services online. They may use colloquialisms, abbreviations, or a different word altogether that has a similar meaning. So, in the same way as you would identify your industry-specific keywords to optimize your English language web site, you have to research the terms that people use to search in the foreign market you’re targeting.

To help demonstrate this, consider the following situation. A company that sells car insurance to the English-speaking market dedicates a considerable amount of resources towards ensuring it ranks highly on Google for the search term “car insurance.” It then decides to make inroads into French markets.

An accurate translation of “car insurance” into French would be l’assurance automobile. However, Google’s French keyword tool indicates this term achieves very few hits. Instead, people tend to use assurance auto or assurance voiture. As you can see, a major SEO travesty can be avoided by carrying out just a little research.

In some markets, it may be possible to use the English keywords on a foreign language web site. In Germany, for example, English phrases are often used, particularly with web-based terminology. So a web design company that ranks highly in the UK or Australia for the term “web design” could incorporate it directly into its German-language web site.

Foreign Language Search Engine Rankings

It’s worth being aware that keyword saturation on non-English language web sites is nowhere near what it is on English language web sites. So it’s quite possible for your business to attain lucratively high positions for key search terms on non-English search engines quicker than those of your native tongue. Taking our previous example, a car insurance company requires fewer resources to optimize its French web site for assurance auto on, than it does for “car insurance” on the US, UK, or Australian Google.


A multilingual marketing strategy should be the cornerstone of any international initiative. Businesses of all sizes can go global with nothing more than a web site, a networked computer, and a bundle of entrepreneurial savvy. But to do so, it’s vital to think local. Using inappropriate style, grammar, tone, and terminology can hamper progress in new markets, hence why localization is a key underpinning facet of any global strategy.

Search engine optimization is central to web site localization and any organization that fails to localize its web site properly is missing a trick.

Feature image by eiratansey.