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Fuschia Hutton

What is SEO translation and why is it vital for multilingual websites?

In recent years, I’ve been starting to get more requests for search engine optimisation (SEO) translation. And this makes a lot of sense. Our lives are becoming increasingly digital, and it’s not unusual these days for businesses to operate solely online. And the online space is getting more and more competitive. While you could have got away with ignoring SEO say 10 years ago, this is no longer the case.

I receive requests for SEO translation quotes from both translation agencies and end-clients. But since it’s a relatively new subskill, I find there’s a lot of confusion about what SEO translation services involve. Often we need to have several conversations to identify what the client actually needs.

Sometimes clients tell me they don’t need to optimise their website for SEO because it’s “not necessary for their market”. Or that their SEO agency is taking care of it.

But if you don’t optimise your translated website, you’ll miss out on vital web traffic. And there’s worse – it could even harm the SEO of your website as a whole.

Here’s why.

Multilingual search engine optimisation (SEO) definition

First things first, what is SEO translation?

Moz is an SEO tool and its blog is a goldmine for anyone with even a passing interest in SEO. They define SEO as: “a set of practices designed to improve the appearance and positioning of web pages in organic search results.” Another key factor for SEO is the usability of your website and writing to appeal to humans, not just search engines.

Translation is the act of changing words from one language (source) to another (target) in a way that communicates the same meaning and emotional effect. Translations can vary from the most literal word-for-word rendering to a free transcreation which uses completely different words but still has the same emotional effect.

So what is multilingual SEO (or SEO translation)?

Here’s my definition:

“SEO translation is translating web copy into another language in a way that takes SEO aspects into account. This can involve:

  • using keywords
  • providing easy-to-read, natural copy
  • improving the usability and accessibility of the site

The result is a website or webpage in a new language which is more likely to be discovered by speakers of that language through search engines. And by providing them with the best possible experience, it’ll keep them on the website for longer with the ultimate aim of converting them.”  

Why does SEO translation matter?

If you’re targeting web users who speak another language, there are lots of reasons to take SEO translation seriously.

Firstly, if you’ve used keywords to optimise your website then you’ll know how powerful this technique can be for pulling in organic traffic. Finding out what words and phrases (keywords) users are actually using removes a lot of guessing. It can even identify gaps which your competitors aren’t exploiting.

Most web users prefer to browse in their own language. So if you’re actively targeting a market then you should provide them the option to browse in their own language. It’s not just a matter of language proficiency – we all have limited time. Even though I speak Italian, I’ll often choose the English version of an Italian website.

When your customers search, they’re more likely to choose websites which look like they’ll give them what they need. Enticing, optimised meta titles and descriptions (the summaries that appear on the search page) play a part in this process.

Once on your website, you’ll want to keep them there. Using natural, pleasant language and giving them what they want (“intent” in SEO-speak) is more likely to keep them on your page. And hopefully they’ll also “convert” in some way – maybe sign up to your newsletter or buy a course.

Poorly translated websites give your customers the impression that you don’t care about them. This unpleasant experience makes them more likely to exit your website as soon as possible (“bounce rate” in SEO-speak). If this happens, it can affect your website rankings as a whole, including pages in the original language.

Investing in SEO translation can be a virtuous circle of sorts. The longer users spend on your website, the more likely search engines are to rate your site as being valuable. This’ll affect your site rankings, meaning that your site is more likely to be served to users in future searches.

How do you do SEO translation? What does it involve?

How you actually carry out SEO translation merits a blogpost in itself and I plan to publish a How To guide later in this series. But if you’re hiring someone to carry out SEO translation, it’s useful to know what it involves.

In a nutshell, SEO translation involves:

  • Researching and selecting keywords using keyword research tools to discover the optimal keywords in the new language
  • Translating the copy for the new target audience. The translation may be relatively faithful to the original or it could involve a lot of rewriting, depending on the objectives and the new market
  • Brainstorming ideas for sensitive elements such as headlines or taglines. I typically include three different suggestions along with a rationale so the client can pick their favourite
  • Optimising the copy with the keywords identified during the research and synonyms. Keywords will be sprinkled in strategic places within the copy
  • Changing images or topics if necessary
  • Writing optimised meta data, slugs, and alt images
  • Monitoring and measuring the performance of the keywords on a regular basis. This might involve A/B testing different keywords, topics or headlines

This doesn’t capture all SEO techniques. There are also technical aspects which are typically outside a translator or copywriter’s remit, such as improving website crawlability and site speed, and building links.

Who carries out SEO translation?

There are a few different ways which you can translate your website, so let’s see the benefits and limitations of each one.

Using Google Translate

How does using Google Translate affect your site’s SEO?

At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that Google Translate is the answer. It translates into 133 languages, what’s not to like?

Google is useful for quickly getting the gist of something. Although they’re getting better every day, machine translators are infamous for incorrectly translating words and phrases. If you’re not a native speaker of the target language, it’s surprisingly easy for the wrong term or awkward, clunky phrasing to sneak through.

In an age when most medium-sized businesses can afford to hire a professional copywriter, unreadable, clunky content makes your customers less likely to trust you. If you give the impression that you don’t care about user experience then they’ll think you don’t find their business valuable.

Yes, Google does provide the option to translate all websites. However, beware if you use this option blindly. Google Translate was only ever intended as a tool to help you roughly understand something. It was never intended as a marketing tool.

In fact, Google classes “text translated by an automated tool without human revision” as automatically generated content, which means that it violates one of its spam regulations. Automatic translation is likely word-for-word, and hasn’t been adapted for new audiences, negatively affecting their user experience. And you’d be penalised accordingly.

But there’s worse. Google’s aim is to serve up search results which are relevant and useful to its users. It’s in its interests to provide users with a good search experience. And that includes serving up pages which are relevant, authoritative and well-written. It goes to great lengths to protect this – if your website doesn’t provide a good experience then Google can deindex it. This means it won’t appear anywhere in the search results. This is primarily to stop the proliferation of mounds of thin, poorly written content, but if your translated content is truly terrible, it’s plausible your site could be blacklisted.

Even if your website isn’t blacklisted, a poor translation can still harm the entire website. If your translated website is not keeping users on the page because it’s so painful to read then this’ll affect your bounce rates, making it fall in the search engine rankings.

There’s another reason why you shouldn’t use a free online translator to translate your website. Sharing your content with search engines means it’ll be stored within the translation memory for future use. Everyone will be able to access it, include your competitors.  

Using a translation widget

How about adding a translation plug-in to automatically translate your website (such as Google translate plug-in)? Does using a translation widget help or hinder SEO?

A translation plug-in is an overlay that only the end-users can read, so avoids submitting your translated text to Google. Because it’s only the end-user who can read it, it won’t affect your website rankings.

However, this too, is no holy grail. Plugins often provide users with clunky, broken translations. It can change the appearance of your content and may push call to action buttons and keywords out of synch.

So while it won’t count as poorly written, automatically generated content, users will exit your website as soon as they possibly can, impacting your bounce rates and overall website ranking.

Plus, even if a translation plug-in doesn’t actually harm your website ranking, it’s not going to be ‘good’ for SEO.  Because the translation is not part of the website itself, it’s unlikely to bring in users which speak another language because the keywords they search for won’t be present on the website. Meta titles and descriptions are likely to remain in the original language and not entice them to click on the website.

Working with a native (human) SEO translator

How about working with a human translator? Can you optimise the original version of your website and then just get any translator to translate it? Providing they translate it faithfully, it’ll still be SEO-friendly, right?

Unfortunately not.

While you could plausibly get a generalist translator to translate your website copy and optimise it for SEO retroactively, this is time-consuming and inefficient. Unless you work with a skilled, experienced website copywriter, the result is likely to be clunky and ineffective. Writing sales copy is a specialist skill, and I’ve edited many websites which have been translated by good technical translators who struggle to write sales copy. It can take a surprising amount of time to whip the words into shape and this can sometimes detract from the main objectives of the website.

Then – especially if you have a large volume of words to translate – you could potentially use neural machine translation. However, you’d still need to pay someone to edit it, carry out the keyword research and then optimise it for search. I’ve not worked on any projects like this but I can see how it could be an attractive option if you’re in e-commerce and have a lot of products you need to get online every month.

A much better option is to work with a native SEO translator.

Since relevant, easy-to-read content is a cornerstone of SEO, you’ll get the best results if you work with a native translator who is intimately familiar with the local market and well-versed in SEO. Ideally, an SEO translator should also have copywriting skills, and be able to back this up with certifications or case studies.

Here’s a little secret. Translating keywords doesn’t actually involve translating them. It involves researching them using the same tools the SEO agency or copywriter used. This is because the goal is to optimise your new website for the new market and multilingual SEO, not render a translation that is faithless to a fault.  

For one project I worked on, one Italian keyword had seven possible English translations. Had the project been a general translation project, I would have picked the term which made the most sense to me, or I’d have checked Google to see which term is more common. But because it was an SEO translation project, I used my keyword research tool to identify a term which hit that sweet spot of having a decent search volume and relatively low competition while matching searcher intent. Then I made sure to use all the other terms as synonyms within my copy.

This route is definitely more expensive than using a cheap or free plug-in but if you’re already spending a lot of time or money optimising the original version of your website,  then it’s worth it. Otherwise you’re undoing all that hard work or worse – actually penalising the SEO of your entire website.

SEO translation involves researching keywords in the new language rather than actually translating them

The new norm for translated websites

Working with an SEO translator or multilingual SEO translation agency is your best bet if you want to really provide value to customers who speak a different language. I predict that, as more and more customers and agencies realise the importance of SEO, optimising translated websites for SEO will become the norm.  

Do you need an SEO-friendly English website? I write easy-to-read, effective, SEO-friendly website copy. I’m happy to carry out keyword research myself or work with your existing keywords. That’s one less thing for you to think about. Get in touch and let’s chat about your project.