The UK’s economic stagnation has forced many domestic retailers to look overseas for new sources of revenue. But the business of attracting and converting foreign custom online comes with a host of specific challenges which, if they are to be overcome, demand a level of specialist knowledge, skill and experience that is rarely found, even in search marketing circles. Jimmy McCann, head of SEO at Search Laboratory offers some guidance for domestic retailers looking to target foreign markets.
by Jimmy McCann
It is news to no-one that the most popular means of finding information online is through the use of a search engine so, for many domestic firms, the best approach to attracting foreign trade lies in a strategic blend of multilingual search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) advertising.
Insist on native speakers
Maximising results from foreign language SEO and PPC means getting to grips with how target customers employ local phrases alongside the variety of alternative foreign language search terms that the customer could choose to formulate their search request. Authenticity is crucial here. Only mother-tongue linguists have the skills to creatively explore alternative phrases during the initial keyword identification process. Automated translation tools are not up to the challenge. Indeed non-native speaking human translators also fail to capture important local phrases, due to how they have been trained to translate from one language to another. Consider a race-to- the-finish cross word competition, in which a fluent but non-native speaking translator was pitted against a mother-tongue linguist. The native speaker would win hands down, every time.
A little PPC can go a long way
Utilising a contained PPC campaign can help confirm the selection of search terms that are used in the natural SEO strategy for that market. PPC campaigns can be used as exploratory tactics to test the effectiveness of potential keywords, the most potent of which can subsequently be built into the corresponding SEO campaign.
It is important to stress here that only a fraction of internet users searching on any given topic will be doing so with any intent to buy. Those that are searching in ‘buying mode’ have often completed their research and narrowed their key search terms to enable the identification of their desired product or service. Analysing conversion rates in PPC helps to sort the buyers from the browsers.
Why translating English PPC ads is a waste of money
Many UK retailers moving abroad will have fully fledged PPC campaigns already up and running. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a valid first step into foreign language PPC would be to translate English PPC ads into the languages of new target markets and use these as a means of driving overseas traffic ‘back home’ to the UK site. Perhaps the company in question is already receiving a growing number of online orders or enquiries from overseas without doing anything at all.
Sadly, this is very unlikely to result in actual trade. The problem here is that the foreign attention the company has received so far is very unlikely to have come via a search engine. The referral is far more likely to be via a personal recommendation, a forum or from another unrelated source. In these instances, the user already knows that the site is in English and has decided to press on regardless.
This is not the case with website traffic attracted via PPC, where UK retailers are competing on foreign soil for cold inbound leads. Regardless of how attractive a company’s proposition is, customers investigating new sites remain very language sensitive, so the vastly reduced conversion rate caused by the language barrier almost always renders them uncompetitive.
To make matters worse, customers will only drop out of the cycle after they have triggered a charge by clicking through the PPC sponsored link, resulting in considerable wasted investment and some very uncomfortable conversations at the next board meeting.
The devil’s in the detail
Regional formatting differences must not be overlooked when setting up a localised foreign language website, as this can make the difference between customers completing a sale and pulling out. Address formats, for example, differ from country to country and need to be accommodated on pages where customers are required to enter their postal details to complete a sale. Ireland and Panama are examples of countries that don’t have a postcode system, if your system requires one, how will they complete the sale? Bespoke forms should be developed according to the idiosyncrasies of each market, ensuring that local market customers can quickly and easily proceed through the purchasing process. If they encounter any hitches, kiss their custom goodbye.
Don’t assume you need a locally registered domain
How a retailer’s domestic site is registered will have a bearing on the approach it should take when expanding overseas. When looking to target a new geographical area such as Germany, a UK retailer with a ‘.co.uk’ address, for example, should consider registering a Germany specific ‘.de’ top level domain (TLD). This will instill both assurance and familiarity in German customers which is not imparted by a ‘.co.uk’ domain.
A few words of warning, however. This approach may not be practical for UK retailers who do not wish to open an office in each of the countries they wish to trade in. Australia for example, requires a company to have a local country registered office before a country specific TLD will be granted.
Alternatively, a company with the more collectively accepted and recognised ‘.com’ extension, can create a subdirectory specifically for their target markets for example, ‘.com/fr’. This approach will also instill a semblance of familiarity and trust among foreign customers since it imparts a sense of international stature.
The customer experience comes first
This can be understood in fairly simple terms: put the customer experience at the heart of everything that is done online. In practice this is far from straightforward but, as a guiding principle, it is sound. Google’s indexing policy revolves around the notion that it should strive to make the internet a better place for everyone – an environment that is fast and easy to navigate; a place where it is easy for a user to retrieve relevant content that is tuned to their own social and cultural situation. For UK retailers trading abroad, this means developing an understanding of native spoken language, geography and culture and building this into every step of its online engagement with foreign customers, from the moment they initiate a search, through the entire sales cycle to the point they chose to disengage with the brand.
The power of knowing
Knowledge of regional trends and habits should also be understood in order to develop appropriate content and links with external platforms. Trends in Germany for example, highlight that Facebook commands less popularity than in other markets, indicating that retailers targeting German customers should consider alternative channels through which to engage.
Regional and cultural perceptions of what constitutes a quality online presence also vary. In Korea for example, blogging is seen as a fundamental part of any website’s visibility. Accordingly, Naver, Korea’s largest search engine, prioritises blogs created on its own platform over traditional website content, making backlinks from bloggers of particular importance to a search strategy focusing on this market.
Although not an exact science, a logical and tested approach to website localisation is more likely to provide the best results. Now more than ever, there is justification in enlisting the expertise of a specialist multilingual search marketing consultancy to advise on the latest developments in this rapidly evolving space.
With online shopping looking set to maintain its growth, and the global online population expected to reach 2.32 billion by 2014 , there is no escaping the value of developing and maintaining a strong web presence which is relevant and appropriate to individual target markets. With the right strategy and an approach that puts the customer at the heart of all activities, the opportunities for UK retailers are considerable.
Jimmy McCann is head of SEO at Search Laboratory.