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Fuschia Hutton

SEO translation: A step-by-step guide to translating keywords

Translating a word such as 'borsa' from Italian to English isn't as simple as you might think. This has repercussions for SEO translation.

Back when I used to work in an advertising agency, we would regularly receive all-company emails from the international search team asking if anyone could help with SEO translation. Typically, project managers would ask bilingual colleagues to translate a list of keywords into various languages.

The international brands would have devised their SEO strategy in English, and now they wanted to roll it out for their international markets.

However, the more I’ve learned about international SEO and translating keywords, the more I’ve realised that this is the wrong approach to take.

Why SEO translation isn’t as simple as you think

It’s easy to think that once you have a list of keywords in one language, all you need to do is translate the words one-by-one, and you’ll have the list of keywords in the new language, ready to optimise your content.

There are two reasons, however, why this isn’t the best approach.

Let’s say you are an Italian handbag company. You choose the Italian keyword ‘borsa’. (OK, this is highly unlikely given the competition of this keyword, but I want to keep things simple).

Given no further context, I would translate this as ‘bag’. If I was given more context, probably ‘handbag’.

However, an American translator might translate this word as ‘purse’.

In the UK, a purse is where we store our credit cards and money. In America, it’s more likely to contain makeup, a notebook, etc.

‘Handbag’ has a high search volume and high competition. ‘Bag’ and ‘purse’ both register lower search volumes and have lower competition. But traffic for ‘bag’ is likely to be less qualified than ‘handbag’, because it will include people looking for briefcases, satchels, bumbags, rucksacks, and the like. And the searchers won’t be interested in buying your handbag.

But there’s more. You definitely don’t want to be running your keywords through an automatic machine translator like Google: ‘borsa’ could easily be ‘stock exchange’ or ‘grant’. Of course, a human translator who knows that you are a handbag company won’t make that mistake. But a machine translator won’t be able to apply that knowledge.

Here’s my simple guide to making sure you choose the right keywords when carrying out SEO translation.

SEO translation: make sure you select the right country

Step 1: make sure you’ve set your keyword tool to the right country

My preferred tool for keyword research is Ubersuggest. It’s free and more user-friendly than Google’s traditional Keywords Planner.

First things first, you need to make sure you’re looking at search results for the right country/ language combination. Sounds obvious, but believe me, I’ve made that mistake many times.

The default setting for Ubersuggest is English/ United States, so if you’re targeting the UK make sure you change it to English/ United Kingdom.

  SEO translation: first hunch keywords   

Step 2: enter your first ‘hunch’ keyword

By first ‘hunch’ keyword, I mean more or less a literal translation of your chosen keyword (but from the right context).

I’m going to use a more specific example this time to illustrate.

My Italian keyword is: ‘borsa in pelle artigianale’. This keyword has a monthly search volume of 1,000 and a competition rating of 36, which is about average, so it’s more appropriate for larger brands.

A literal English translation of this keyword would be ‘handmade leather handbag’ (handbag, rather than bag, because the client sells women’s bags).

Let’s have a look at the results:

SEO translation: look at the suggestions for inspiration

Hmmm. Not great! Only 70 searches per month, and it’s even more competitive than the Italian version!

Step 3: Have a look at the suggestions for inspiration

Ubersuggest will then give a number of suggestions based on the search. But as you can see, the results are not great. There’s nothing that really packs the punch of the original Italian keyword in terms of search volume.

So, perhaps we need to look for alternatives to ‘handmade’.

SEO translation: use the thesaurus to brainstorm ideas

Step 4: Brainstorm synonyms

I use the thesaurus every day, when translating, when writing copy. And it’s helpful for keyword research too. While you might be able to think of several synonyms off the top of your head, it can inspire new ideas and even a new path to go down.

Of the suggestions, I would say that only ‘handcrafted’ is plausible here. Homespun leather handbag anyone?

I expected to see ‘artisan’, but it’s not here. Another option for us to try out on Ubersuggest.

SEO translation: looking for alternative suggestions

Step 5: Back to Ubersuggest

To my surprise, ‘handcrafted leather handbag’ doesn’t deliver.

‘Artisan leather handbag’ is searched for by just 10 internet users a month. But the competition is high, making this is an equally poor keyword to bet on.

SEO translation: more suggestions from Ubersuggest

Step 6: Back to the drawing board

We need to take a step back and put ourselves in our customers shoes. What do we think English-speakers are thinking of when they are looking for products like our online?

What is their intent?

In the UK, Italian design is synonymous with well-crafted, high-quality products. So we could try and incorporate ‘Italian’ into our search.

This is more like it. We’ve sacrificed the idea of the bag being handcrafted, but that can be incorporated into the copy (and long-tail keywords, which bring in less, but more qualified web traffic).

The search volume is lower than our Italian keyword, and our competition again, is average. A company that wants to have a good chance of ranking for this keyword will need to have 12 backlinks and a domain score of at least 32 – serious stuff, and out of reach for a leather craftsperson who works alone. But it could be a good option for a bigger brand who is able to generate those backlinks.

So, if you are searching on behalf of a big company with a strong online presence, then ‘Italian leather handbag’ would be your best bet. Not ‘handmade leather bag’.

If you are searching for a smaller brand, then we would look to identify more specific keywords based on other factors – perhaps specifics on how the bag is designed, its colour, or type of leather.

These search terms would have fewer searchers per month, but also lower competition. If you are a small, bespoke company, you could stumble on the sweet spot.

The keyword that you choose would depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • The size of the brand and sales volume targets. A sole craftsperson may only need to sell 10 premium quality bags a month, compared to a larger company that needs to shift higher volumes, so a lower search volume could be perfectly feasible.
  • Content/ copy goals. A product description will target different keywords than a piece of informative or inspirational content.

Italian business ready to share your stunning Made in Italy brand with the world? Get in touch with me to chat about how my SEO translation, transcreation and copywriting services can help you succeed in the English-speaking market.