In Search Podcast: Effective SEO Translation

David: Hey, it’s David. Have you ever managed an international site yet failed to drive as much traffic and convert as many sales abroad as you do in your own country? That’s the challenge that we’re looking at in episode 97, where Julia-Carolin Zeng will explain six steps to effective SEO translation. The six steps are:

  • Have an In-Market Expert at Hand
  • Know Your Market
  • Get the Right Translation Budget for Your Market
  • Don’t Just Translate, Localize
  • Brief Your Translators Correctly
  • Find the Right Translator

Julia started her career in SEO 5 years ago in the online gambling industry working for an affiliate company. She has since worked in different industries and is a freelance SEO consultant for 3 years. Her educational background is in linguistics and cultural anthropology, and she can communicate in French, Spanish and Italian, in addition to her mother tongue German. Julia is usually based in London, but she loves traveling and the digital nomad lifestyle.

Six Steps to Effective SEO Translation

J: Hi, David. Thanks for having me.

D: Hey, Julia, thanks so much for coming on. You can find Julia over at So first question, Julia, who is Charlie?

J: Charlie is a little monkey that travels the world. Unfortunately, I don’t have Charlie with me right now, because it’s somewhere hidden in my backpack. But yeah, it’s a little monkey that I use for branding for my travel blog. And it’s just a lot easier to take a picture of a cute stuffed animal in front of the Eiffel Tower than trying to take a weird selfie.

D: That’s a nice way to do it. Today, we’re talking about effective site translation for SEO. Is it not enough just to leave it to automated translations nowadays?

J: Spoiler alert, no. The thing is, automated translations might work in one case, but not in the other. Especially if your topic gets a bit more technical. Automated translations just don’t know the words. I’ve seen somebody using automated translations, and suddenly, it was completely the wrong term in the other language. I worked, for example, in the crypto industry for an affiliate marketer. And we translated these crypto terms into German, which is my native language. So I’m very passionate about these translations when I read it, and we suddenly had the mining rig that was translated with oil rig.

D: Wow. And you wonder why you didn’t get any conversions?

J: Exactly. It’s also you’re losing all credibility and authority. People read this and they’re wondering what are these people talking about? This is just rubbish. And they click away. They don’t even go any further on your website. This is how I would behave if I saw a really bad translation. That’s why automated translations quite often don’t work. You can use them as an assisted translation. You can use the automated translation to save a bit of time, but still have a human being, review it, make changes, make adjustments, and see how it works.

Another example that I’ve seen once, while I was traveling in Italy, the word for peach is the same word as fish in Italian. And I stood in front of one of these machines where you can get drinks and cans, and I thought, who’s gonna buy a fish iced tea? These are just some examples that show how automated translation can go horribly wrong.

D: Absolutely. I like your thought that you can start with automation but you absolutely have to keep ongoing. And when I really like the tool, at the moment. I’ve tested quite a few different automated translations and I find that it’s reasonably accurate to begin with, but you absolutely have to go in there and manually edit it afterward.

J: Exactly. That’s the point I’m trying to make.


1. Have an In-Market Expert at Hand

D: So today, you’re sharing your top six tips for translating your site much more effectively for SEO. Starting off with having an in-market expert at hand.

J: This is really important. And I see that for myself, because I’m usually based in London, but I’m not traveling right now. And I also do translations occasionally into German. But then, especially when it comes to more recent topics, like all the lockdown-related things, I realized that I don’t even know how people really talk about this in everyday life because I’m not there. I don’t know if they use the English word for home office, or if they have come up with a good German word to do it. It takes a bit of research to find out. You can find out but you need to first realize that there is something to find out and you don’t know what you don’t know. So that’s why it’s important to work with translators that are actually in the market in everyday life and know the current language. And not the language that was in use 10 or 15 years ago when the person still lived there.


2. Know Your Market

D: So that’s about having an in-market expert at hand and your number two tip is to know your market.

J: Yeah. They kind of go hand in hand. With the Know Your Market comes a bit more. For example, I also did a lot of SEO in the online gambling industry and in crypto and one example is payment methods. Whereas in the English-speaking markets, everybody is on credit cards. Whereas in Germany, bank transfers are still a widely used payment method also for online payments. And then you see on the English website, there’s not even a page for wire transfer. Whereas Germans need this as a payment method because that’s what they’re familiar with. There might be things like pay save cards. That’s basically like a little card that you buy at a gas stop, that you charge with 20 pounds or euros. And then you can use it to make an online payment. These things come up often and you need to know what your audience is familiar with.

Another example. Once when I was traveling, I was on one of these tours for people that take you to the mountains and show you nice places. And there were two other Germans with me on that bus. They tried to book the next tour. And once they went on the website, the only option they had for payment was a credit card. But, also something people quite often don’t know, in Germany, it is not normal to have a credit card. In the UK we have debit cards that also have the 16 digit number that you can use for online payments. But in Germany, that is not common. So they sat in front of this website thinking they have no way to pay for this now. How can we book this experience?

So these are things, especially if you’re targeting people in another market, that you just need to know what you need to provide to them. Another example that I recently had is when I worked with a tech company that was providing software for educational purposes. And when we started translating this into German, I explained that for Germany, it might not work as well as it works for other European markets. Because teachers have a given set of tools that they should use. And they’re just not willing in Germany to invest money out of their own pocket to pay for additional software. So it already starts with if this market is really that valuable. It goes way beyond SEO. There are lots of considerations to make before you even start to think about translating a website.

D: Absolutely, or even your business proposition as a whole. Because the last example that you gave, perhaps that means you change your model in that country to target maybe the schools as your customers instead of the teachers themselves.

Another little example that I was thinking of as well is direct debit is something that’s really common in the UK, but not many other countries necessarily know that or call it the same thing. In the States, it’s an automatic transfer or authorized withdrawal, or autopay. There are lots of different terminologies. And you’re not going to know that by directly translating things.

3. Get the Right Translation Budget for Your Market

And your number three tip is to get the right budget for translations.

J: That kind of also touches back on the point of automated translations. There’s in general a bit of a misconception in SEO and also when it comes to original content creation, how much budget is needed to write good content. And that is no different for translations. If you pay cheap, you get cheap. So it’s really important to evaluate the budget for the market because translators, for example, in Norwegian, are way more expensive than translators for Spanish. German is somewhere in the middle. Also French is somewhere in the middle. But that’s the first thing to know: how much does a good translator cost for that language? And then how do you find a good translator with your budget? What I noticed, especially when you try to find translators on platforms like Upwork, there are lots of people providing cheap services, but then you usually get bad quality. I’ve seen it with a client of mine who had very little content budget. They said, “Well, what this translator delivered is no better than a machine translation. We could have done it ourselves.” And I had to do so much editing afterward.

D: Or maybe the translator did use a machine translator.

J: Yeah, that does happen if you hire somebody that appears to be cheap and they use the machine translation. So this is really important for each market. The budget shouldn’t be the same depending on which market you target. And then my main recommendation is if you have a lower budget, better to translate less content, then try and get it all translated quickly and it’s all bad quality. It’s the same rule as for everything, quality over quantity.

D: If you’re going to a site like Upwork, and you don’t speak the language that you’re trying to get the work done. How do you judge the potential quality of candidates? Is it just as easy as looking at reviews? Or is there another way to do it?

J: So the reviews in Upwork I would not trust. Because quite often, it is someone who wants to be nice to this person, so I give them a good rating. These reviews are like any review in the world, they’re not 100% truthful. So what I’ve done, for example, a year ago, I needed translators for Japanese, which is a language I don’t speak at all, I can’t even read it. I didn’t know what they were providing here. It looks all like pictures to me.

So what I’ve done is I’ve reviewed first all the applications in detail. And also there you see already a big difference in quality, what they send to you. And then I picked the three that seemed to be the best based on experience and what they had sent in their application. I gave each one a different article to translate, and then I had them proofread each other’s work. And what I basically told them is that I want to see your translation and your proofreading skills. They might have suspected that they proofread the work of somebody else in the test. But it gave me a pretty good idea of how everybody is doing it. And I’ve asked them to leave track changes on Word so I could see exactly what has been changed and which comments they make. Are they thinking about what they’re doing?

I had some that even made suggestions for internal links. Some others have even done a little keyword research for the market and provided the keywords they would suggest. And by doing that I even found one translator that I then trained to be an SEO consultant for on-page optimizations. I couldn’t teach all the technical things. But she actually became the go-to SEO consultant for that market and that team. So that worked pretty well to have them proofread each other’s work. And you get a good impression.

D: I think that’s a wonderful tip. I’ve employed people who have not worked before and I’ve done something in a similar manner to what you’ve suggested. And then I’ve taken maybe three or four people and I’ve actually paid them a little bit to produce a little bit of test work each and then decided upon people from that. But I think you’ve taken it a step further there by the proofing of each other’s work. That’s a wonderful tip and I’m thinking of how I can use that in other scenarios.

J: Yeah. And of course, that was all paid work. Good point.

D: That’s one other question I was thinking of whether or not to ask you and that would you advise paying people for test work. But it’s kind of not within the parameters of what we’re discussing at the moment. Shall we move on to tip number four? Which is don’t just translate, localize.

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4. Don’t Just Translate, Localize!!

J: Yes. So that again comes back a bit to this Know Your Market. If you’re just translating, you might miss certain things. And localizing means that you’re not just translating. For example, if we talk about, again, the education system in different countries, you need to know how many years do people go to school? When do they make a decision? Do I want to get my A levels? Do I want to do my GCSEs? What are these terms? What are they called? And there are for an example, already differences in the German-speaking markets. For example, in German, we use the word abitur for A levels. In Switzerland and Austria, they call it matuda. So they use a completely different word within the same language-speaking community. And these are things you need to know, that you need to then tweak the content a bit.

Sometimes it is not enough to just replace one word with another. You might need to add an additional sentence to explain what you are talking about. And then this thing with colleges, for example, in the US, we don’t really have the same equivalent. In Germany, you come out of uni, and you come out of high school and you go directly to uni. And these things you just need to notice. And the same with the payment methods, how they are called. Or if we talk about legal processes, for example, knowing your customer is one of these things that we had to do a lot in online gambling, and also in the crypto industry, it is very common. And then in Germany, you need to know people generally have an ID card that they can send as proof of ID. Whereas in the UK, that’s not so common. You either ask for a passport or driver’s license. And all these things that might need to be tweaked for the other market. So when you list the requirements, which documents they can send, you need to ask which documents do they actually have in that market. What can you ask of them? And these little things you need to know and localize to make it attractive for that market. In the end, the rule is that somebody reading that translation should not notice that it was translated from another language. It should read like it has been written.

5. Brief Your Translators Correctly

D: And number five is to brief translators correctly.

J: That is also something I noticed quite often when somebody asked me to translate something into German. And then I asked them, “Okay, do you want the formal or the informal way of addressing the reader?” And then they don’t know what you’re talking about. Because in English, you don’t have that, everybody is you, and you use their first name. Whereas in German, and also in French, and in Spanish, you have two different forms of you. One is the very personal one, somebody you know, that you would call by their first name, and the other one is more formal. So you address them by their last name, for example. And you need to make a decision, how you want your website to be written, how you want to address your reader so that it comes down to who is the target audience? What type of product are we actually trying to sell?

For example, I worked with a company in electrical engineering. And they had translated some of the old content with the formal way, others with the informal way and it was such a big mess. And we need to make a decision. And we said, okay, it’s electrical engineering, it’s a highly specialized topic, you have a very distinct target audience, I think we should definitely go the formal way here to come across as professional and the other markets. And this then again comes also down to those machine translations. The machine doesn’t know and you can’t tell the machine that it should be translated with one or the other. That’s also where the discrepancies came from in the past on that website. And these are things you need to tell your translator. And you need to tell them before they start working. It’s not just one word that you have to replace, with that different form comes the different conjugation of the verbs, maybe even sometimes a different sentence structure. So if you have to then re-edit your translation, you might have to rewrite whole sentences. So there’s a lot of work afterward if the translator has not been briefed correctly,

D: A lot of great points there, a lot of things to think about. It also made me think about the difference between British English and American English as well. And it’s a significant difference. And there are different results involved there as well.

J: Exactly. And again, it also comes down to localization. Do I write this for an American audience? Do I write this for an English-British audience? How do we write certain things? Which words do we use? We could have probably found some better examples there to give for this localization. Yeah, that’s what this is about.

6. Find the Right Translator

D: Your last point was to find the right translator. Was that partly covered in what we were discussing in terms of getting translators to proof each other’s work?

J: Yeah, exactly that. One thing that we have not mentioned yet is if the topic requires a specialist translator, you should get a specialist. For example, I worked on a big cybersecurity website, where I said, “Okay, I need a translator here who actually understands cybersecurity and these things.” You cannot just take someone also because in that industry, lots of markets actually use English terms. So certain things could not be translated, so you need an expert. I guess the classic example would be medical or legal translation. You definitely need somebody who has a background in that field, not just a background in translation to get it correct.

D: Absolutely. And there are many languages that use certain words in English. Scandinavian countries use certain English words to describe things even though Swedish words might exist, for example.

J: Exactly. And that also then comes back to culturally understanding that market. For example, in Germany, we are a lot more open to using English words and taking them over into our language. Whereas in France, there are even laws that say words need to be proper French, there are purists tendencies in the language, Spanish and Italian, they’re a bit more relaxed than France. But still, they have the tendency to create their own word in their own language for new concepts, instead of taking over an English word.

The Pareto Pickle – Brief Your Writers on Your Expectations

D: This is a conversation that I can continue having for a long time. And I’m sure you certainly can as well, perhaps we’ll have to do it in a future episode. But let’s finish off with the Pareto Pickle. So Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What’s one SEO activity you would recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?

J: Again, that comes down to the Pareto Pickle or translators. When something gets written in English, and it’s supposed to be published in English, if you get the brief right and tell the writer what you actually want. Like that, I want a how-to article, or I want 10 tips. And I want this internal link in that piece of content to another piece of content here on the website. It saves you a lot of time later. A lot of editing that you don’t have to do afterward. And it doesn’t take that much time. Once you have your template for a content brief… you know what to fill in and what to brief them on. And, of course, once you’ve worked for a bit longer with one writer, it takes less and less time, but it saves you so much more time down the line.

D: Great tip and it reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln. When asked about how you’d go about chopping down a tree. If he was given six hours, he’d spend the first four hours sharpening the saw or sharpening the axe. And it’s a good way to prepare a little bit more and brief your writers a little bit more.

D: Thank you for having me.

J: And thank you for listening.

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