Delegates to the recent International Search Summit alongside SMX Advanced in Seattle were asked what is the number one problem in managing multinational search? One delegate immediately said, “Coping with the Language Barrier” which set me thinking as to how managers can manage or work around the language barriers which inevitably exist.
The issue for global businesses is that they are forced to encourage mixed culture teams, often working in very different environments, in different languages and in different timezones, to work together as if they had always been lifelong colleagues and best buddies.
Since 90% of communication is said to be non-verbal, this means that, with the remoteness, people are forced to communicate with only 10% of their normal bandwidth and probably working in a language which is not their normal mother tongue. How much more difficult could it get?
Even the brainiest linguists cannot successfully learn all the languages they might need in an international project — some of our clients are working in 20-30 languages and learning that lot would probably take longer than one lifetime — and to learn one language can take years not weeks. So for most, alternative language barrier busting strategies are needed.
1. Employ Native Speakers
This is the third career where I have developed business functions around a team of speakers of multiple languages so you’ll not be surprised to learn that, for major in-house teams, it makes sense to employ native speakers of your target languages.
Note that I always talk about “native speakers” rather than “locals” because the crucial thing is that they learnt the language they’re going to deliver to your business from their mother’s knee — not from a tape.
The fact that they don’t live or reside in that market right now is less critical since their contribution at HQ may be more powerful than it could be from an alpine hilltop.
2. Work With International Search Marketing Specialists
Yes it’s true — I’m compromised in that that’s what my business does (self-declaration and deprecation required).
Strangely, it’s only recently that we started to realize that one of our main functions was to break language barriers and, sometimes, to help businesses communicate with themselves as well as with their customers.
However, we are not the only specialist international search marketing company out there — but do look for a specialism in the field if you can. Not only will they give you the right answers more quickly, but they will recognize the importance of helping you bust the language barriers apart.
3. Partner With A Translation Agency
For some people, the right answer may be to use a translation agency — but probably not for the specialist search techniques (whether paid or organic) as that’s not their speciality. But translation agencies can help you to roll out your products and services by, for example, helping you with your online support.
It can be a neat solution to have support questions filtered by a translation agency and then fed back to you in your own language. Of course, the reverse applies when you respond. There are increasingly some clever approaches in this area where questions and responses are stored in a library for rapid use in situations which have arisen many times before.
4. Selectively Use Automated Translation
No one in search marketing would tolerate the use of automated or “machine translation” for content that is intended to market your business through the search engines. (You might want to check whether your localization team has the same idea!) But automated tools are very useful as a quick guide for management and can be very successfully used in this context to check the basic thrust of what’s going on in your campaign.
However, never assume that they’re telling you the whole picture or allow yourself to be influenced by what looks to you like poor quality content. It’s not always the content that’s poor — it’s the automated tool which mangled it!
5. Use Visual Graphics For Process Communication
Strange that more people don’t use this more often! It’s not difficult really to create a “search best practice” manual for instance and to base it’s whole production on graphics. Not only is that much more fun for the global team read, and often more fun to produce, it means that things just don’t get lost in translation anymore.
Speaking at the International Search Summit, my fellow columnist Bill Hunt said, “Use online software to record a video of screenshots and voiceover to get the message across” which is a very useful tip. In this context, words are your enemy and graphics your friend.
6. Build Software To Manage Processes
In addition to employing native speakers, we’ve found it necessary and useful to deploy software which manages our processes. The advantage of that is it takes much less effort to explain that you have to click “next” than to direct people to go and find information from all myriad sources. It’s not straightforward though and doesn’t produce a result overnight.
7. Develop Templates That Work Across All Cultural Requirements
Standardizing the structure of your website offers big advantages too and creates a “common language”. Allowing different divisions in different regions of the world simply because “we’re different” is not a good solution. That does not mean that cultural differences do not have to be taken into account and they do require a considerable amount of consultation.
8. Develop Processes Which Always Include “Back Translation”
Don’t forget to deploy “back translation” even when forward translation is not appropriate. An example of this is with keyword research. You cannot use translation to do keyword research, it just doesn’t work. But what you can do is to have your keyword research use automated tools to translate the keywords they’ve researched for you, back into your own language.
This helps greatly with overall understanding and sharing of tactics between regions. Just remember always to deploy an element of flexibility with the translations — you’re not actually targeting the translated term and their may be nuances of meaning between it and the original.
9. Web Analytics Data Doesn’t Lie In Any Language
As the saying goes, “nothing is as certain in life as death, taxes and web analytics data”.
The data doesn’t lie and numbers are a universal language and currency understood by almost anyone on the planet except tax inspectors. I suggest you consider increasing the amount you use numbers to increase the level of understanding between you and your colleagues.
Measure everything from how many pages you publish in each market to how many conversions are achieved per head of population to give more interesting comparables. But don’t ever expect comparables to match between markets since they almost never will, but you can group countries together into groups with similar patterns of operation.
Politically, you’ll find that different divisions do not like to be at the bottom of a league table of any kind!
10. Stick The Babel Fish In Your Ear & Listen
Yes, I agree that this is less than feasible but I was always amused by the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” when Arthur Dent discovered he could understand “Vogon” by inserting the babel fish into his ear. However, joking aside, do try and develop at least an empathy for the language requirements of the markets you’re responsible for.
At last year’s Seattle ISS, a delegate asked what would be the best strategy to get to grips with Russian culture as she was particularly keen to improve performance in Russia. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from the same delegate saying that she was 12 weeks into a Russian course and was absolutely loving it.
International search marketer techniques do come in all shapes and sizes!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.