SEO For Europe Is More Than Just Using Different Languages

If you ask any search marketer what the main issue is when trying to optimize your website(s) for Europe he will tell you: language. But there is more to keep in mind when trying to win over Europeans.

Europe consists of fifty countries. If you think that means you will have to optimize for fifty languages, you’re wrong. The European countries which are part of the European Union together already have 23 official languages. But that’s just the European Union. Count in the rest of Europe and you can add many more.

The “problem” of focusing exclusively on languages in Europe is that its not one country, one language. It’s one country, many languages. Take the Netherlands for example. With only 17 million people living on a little piece of ground which (41 thousand square kilometers, which is about 16 thousand square miles) the official language is Dutch, but Frisian is also accepted as a official language. Next to that there are about 8 or 9 dialects, but when optimizing for websites you don’t have to take those in account.

When traveling south from the Netherlands it gets more complicated. In Belgium there are three official languages: Dutch, French and German. For the Belgians its therefore is very tempting to copy and paste the Dutch, French and German content and think you’re done. Think again. Dutch spoken in Belgium is a different kind of Dutch than that spoken in the Netherlands. And the same goes for the French compared to what they are speaking in France.

Getting the picture? You can probably guess what I will be saying about the countries when traveling to the south even more. How many official languages do you need to handle in France? Surprise! Only one. The French are considered to be very stubborn and very proud of their country. That translates into the language where, though about ten times the size of the Netherlands and with five times more people living there, they only speak one language. A complete different situations than with their neighbors further south. In Spain Castillian Spanish is the official language, spoken by 74% of the population but the Spanish also speak Catalan, Galician and Basque.

So now you get the picture: Europe has many countries and many languages. Some say there are over 200 official languages to take in account. Others also look at the dialects and then count over a 1000. So language really is a big issue when optimizing sites for Europeans.

“Ok,” I can hear you saying. “Thanks! Now I know there are many languages, so let’s get to work and translate and optimize our sites.” Stop, wait right there. There’s more…

Language is one thing, but Europe is a strange continent in which you have other things to take in account when optimizing. For one thing, there is the cultural aspect. I’m talking about the differences in culture in the way people live and think.

Last year TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington was part of a panel discussing the differences between Europe and the US at the internet marketing event LeWeb in Paris. He decided to be his usual self and became somewhat “rude” when accusing the Europeans of being lazy. Wherever did he get that idea? Here’s how: the days before he was invited by the organizer of the event to join in on a “typical” French lunch. And that means it will take a couple of hours in which you wine and dine. Arrington believed that the French therefore were lazy, because they prefer long lunches to working hard.

He could not have been more wrong. Yes, the French do like to take long lunches, but they also work later towards dinner-time. In fact, dinner time in France is typically not before 8PM. But there was an even bigger mistake Arrington made: with his statement he showed he had no idea of what the differences in European cultures are. Taking a step back northbound for example, to the Netherlands, lunch time is very different than in France. There lunch most of the time consists of a sandwich which is eaten within half an hour. Then again, when its 6PM most Dutch will be out of the office, heading home to have dinner early.

“So,” you say, “You guys eat at different times, what does that have to do with optimizing my webpages?” . Well, everything. The Europeans have different lifestyles, which means they also have different online behavior. They are online at different hours and most probably also looking for different kind of topics, thus searching differently.

Europe is a complicated continent. I could go on for hours. I will get back on different kind of issues in future columns, but there is one more I’d like to highlight here.

Let’s combine the two issues discussed above: language and culture. Do not, I repeat, do not, look at a list of languages from different countries, find the overlapping languages and target them with one site. You will be in big trouble. I already mentioned the difference between Netherlands Dutch and Belgian Dutch when it comes to language. There are more countries in Europe with that issue: in both Germany and Austria for example they speak German. But the language barrier is bigger than just the differences within the language.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that every country in Europe has its own culture. Hey, we fought many wars (and still do) because people felt they didn’t “belong” in one country but should have their own. And though they might speak the same language, they feel they are completely different. And that causes the final issue I’m discussing here: targeting.

For example, when targeting Austria, which is located just below Germany, it’s tempting to set up a German site and use it to target the Austrians also. After all, the language is quite similar. However, chances are you will not get much traffic from Austrians. Why? Simply because the Austrians do not trust the German websites. If they see the shop is on a German .de domain they will be more reluctant to buy a product than when it’s on an Austrian domain. Just because they have a different culture. The same might go for trying to sell products to a Dutchman and targeting him with a Belgian site.

In some countries there are even differences within the country. Take for example Spain, where Basques and Catalan really are living their own lives and where most feel not connected, even hostile in some cases, towards the country itself. A quick example to show how much: last year the Spanish national soccer team won the European Championships. Where in Madrid people were celebrating on the streets, in Barcelona it was relatively quiet. It was after all the Spanish team which had won, not the Catalan team.

So, lots of things to take in account when optimizing for Europe. How to handle all of these language and cultural differences? A couple of tips to close off with:

  • Research the differences in languages.
  • Hire a native speaker to write content.
  • Know the history of the areas you are targeting.
  • Get domains and write sites for every specific country
  • The best way to get a feeling of the differences: travel. Visit some of the countries you are targeting and see how people live. It will help you make your site better.
  • Talk to Europeans: If you don’t have the resources for traveling to Europe be sure to talk to Europeans and get an idea of how they live. Remember: Europeans are everywhere: at events, living all over the world or online.
  • Too much work? Too complicated? Hire or work with a European firm. They can help you get the differences sorted out and translate and optimize your sites properly.

Finally, if this all seems like too much fuss to go through and you don’t feel like optimizing for Europe, think again. It’s a huge market. Europeans search more than any other continent, are more active on the web than any other part of the world and there are 731 million possible clients out there. So it might take a little bit of work, it could well be worth it.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: is a Web/search strategist, international search specialist, trainer, and well-respected blogger. Bas is well informed about what's going on in the world of Internet and search marketing worldwide and especially Europe. Bas is the owner of and also posts regularly on his personal blog.

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  • AndyBlackburn

    I love how you avoided one of the main problem countries… the one with NO official language. Swiss-French, Swiss-German, Swiss-Italian and in 1% of the country, Swiss-Romanian… ohh, and they all speak English too.

    You get used to using the hl/gl Google operators quite quickly when playing around in Switzerland ;)

  • ianeke

    Although your article points out some very valid points of attention in initiating a multilingual SEO campaign, I think you’re exaggerating the cultural and intrinsic linguistic differences. Depending on the search intention, Europeans aren’t that different then let’s say Asians. If you’re looking for a brand new JVC LCD television, you will search on the keywords JVC LCD television, if you’re looking for a relaxing holiday to whatever country you like, you will search on a combination of holiday and a certain geo location. If your looking for some nice running shoes, you will search on Nike running shoes etc. etc

    In my experience the real challenge of a multilingual SEO optimization is simply resources. Are you willing to spend the money necessary for acquiring all necessary TLD’s? Are you willing to write country specific unique (not simply translated) content? Does your budget allow you to execute country specific linkbuilding and link baiting tactics?

    Nice addition to make things even more complex; ever tried to optimized for a specific ethnic population within a certain country?;)

    Note: differences in culture, language, tone of voice etc. are things which need to be taken into account when optimizing for conversions and user experience though. But this is even the case when optimizing for just one country..

  • Dennis Goedegebuure

    Good article Bas,
    What is helping you in Europe, is that you ‘hardly’ would have to optimize for other search engines than Google.
    The Big G is so dominant on the old continent, that whenever you rank high in a certain country on your main keywords, you’re almost done. Scary thought sometimes.

    What is interesting, is that sometimes you can rank high in let’s say on certain keywords, while you are targeting the NL market with your site. Even when you have the country set up in Webmaster central, you still have the chance of ranking in BE, while not ranking in NL.

    Furthermore, I’ve seen an increase of English language sites on competitive terms in the Dutch market. It’s true that most Dutch are speaking English, but if I’m Dutch, and would like some information on San Francisco, what’s the point in ranking the local newspapers in SF?
    This seems to be a reverse problem what has been described by Vanessa Fox here:



  • Axxando

    A brilliant article. I work for a Swiss real estate online marketplace I could tell you stories on this for hours.

    Maintaining a web site in 4 languages does make it all a little more complicated. You want to add a better warning text? Have it translated! You need to add a feature? Have it translated. Plus the latin languages French and Italian usually have about 1.5 times the length of German –> adopt your design! Customer Service? Employees must speak at least 2 languages –> higher staff costs. Searching for houses with different city names for every languages must be possible. Using price variables in a text? Well the price is to show up in different formats and on different places within the sence for every single language…

    And this is just a national platform. Hard to imaging what it would like to properly do it for Germans, Austrians, Italians, French. We currently use language parameters like de, fr, it and en. Going international would we change it to the official culture codes like de-de, de-at, de-ch, fr-fr, fr-ch, it-it, it-ch,…

    Thanks again for this article – I liked it very much.

  • Splinter09

    I’ve doing SEO in Europe now for the past 4 years, mainly in the UK, but recently I started to work for a private client here in Spain. I do speak fluent Spanish and I noticed that even though there 4 different languages here, the majority of the Searches are done in Castellano, prof to that is that we had enquiries from places like Bilbao (Basc Country) and Barcelona as well as from places in our area which is Valencia, and most people speak Valenciano.
    I also use Google KeywordTool and If you add terms in Catallan or Basc, you will see that search volume is not significant.
    My point is despite the fact that there are let’s say 4 different languages spoken here ins Spain, the majority of the Searches are done in the Official Language which is Castellano or Spanish if you prefer.

  • moroandrea

    Completely agree with you. And I also add that Italian are stubborn as well, and also so much stupid to don’t understand at all the difference of a good web site from a worse one, or to invest in SEO (Trust an italian guy :) )

  • Bas van den Beld

    First of all, thanks everybody for all the comments, I’m glad (most of you) liked it.

    Let me start by emphasizing one thing. What I’m trying to say that its not just about language. There is also a cultural aspect in it. Yes, you can have searchers from all over Spain searching in Castallan, but try offering those from Barcelona a patriotic item you won’t sell anything. That is something you have to take into account next to the language issues.

    @AndyBlackburn you’re right, Switzerland is a very good example, I think it would have fitted well in this article, and so would have been Italy for that matter :). I could have added lots more examples I think :).

    @ianeke off course you can feel like I’m exaggerating, but I don’t agree with you on that. I don’t know where you are from, but ask an Austrian for example if they would buy from a German site and most of the times they will say no. As for the search terms: yes, for a branded search you are right, but even in that area you should do research. In Belgium for example they are looking for plasma televisions a lot less than in Holland, while the language is similar. Even within languages you can find differences.

    @Dennis yes, you’re right, we only have Google (which actually is something I would like to see otherwise). That does make it easier! Good point you also make about he Belgian and Dutch rankings, really adds on to what I hoped to explain. The last issue you direct is very much related to the UK SERPS issue I talked about in an earlier post. It seems as if that’s Google’s new policy. But that’s a different discussion, but certainly something to keep in mind.

    @Axxando very good examples again, who said optimizing for one country is easy, let alone the whole of Europe? ;)

    @Splinter09 as I said before, its not just about language, but also about culture. With that in mind a search in Castellan might come from Barcelona, but might have other intentions.

    @moroandrea not just Italians are stubborn, what about the French or the Dutch ;)

  • sem seo mag

    Hello, this is from France.
    You should just add two tips to your excellent post :
    - Local domain names (.fr,.be,.de etc…) are really better for SEO
    and most important : You have to find a local web hosting for each european countries you are targetting, just because Google love to find Local ip’s.
    Best regards, Thibaut

  • Igwe Aneke

    @ Bas: We could be neighbours, i’m also from the Netherlands;)
    And don’t get me wrong…country specific keyword research is crucial for your succes ratio. Notebook and laptop for example are classical examples of differences in search trends between Dutch and German target audiences. And underestimating the possible psychological effect of a TLD extension on CTR’s can also be a recipe for failure.

    Nevertheless I strongly believe intrinsic language and keyword differences to be minor issues in initiating and managing an international multilingual SEO campaign. As Axxando already mentioned, the managing and resources part can be challenging sometimes.

  • sm911

    By far the best domain names for SEO is .com whether you are doing a local or a global SEO.

  • JenB

    A very good choice of topic Bas. It’s true we have a only a few hours driving in a car before the language changes. Or at least the dialect. :)


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