Recently I was approached by a localization company about an SEO partnership. In fact, I’ve been approached by many such firms over the years but most have been unsuccessful or have come to nothing at all. Internally localization firms have certainly recognized a new potential market they’ve been missing out on and are keen to get in on the act. Moreover, international website owners are beginning to realize they have to coordinate translation and SEO activities and have been challenging their localization providers to take care of this for them.

As I identified in my very first post for Multinational Search, this is a big issue for international website marketers. Their monolithic websites can be enormously expensive to create and even more expensive to maintain, so if they’re not performing organically in the search engine results, then there’s a huge ROI question to figure out. Enormous sums of money have been spent on translation and localization services and much of the resulting stream of words is hitting web pages where it is sadly, very frequently, going to sleep.

Localization folks are therefore having to face up to the same questions that journalists, public relations, marketers and advertising people have all been challenged with before, namely answering the question, “What do we get for the money we spend on you?”

Translation and SEO priorities don’t mix

To some extent I’m in a conflicted position on this subject because not only does the group I run firmly have roots in international SEO—now for over 13 years—but following the acquisition of a localization firm in early 2009 we now have clients for whom localization plays a very important role. Moreover, this step has revealed the sheer complexity arising from integrating localization and SEO processes, and has driven me to the firm conclusion that translation and SEO priorities don’t naturally mix. More controversially perhaps, I’m going to point a finger at the localization organizations, processes and software producers who are “guilty as charged” of delaying the progress which should have made much more progress by now.

The most recent SEMPO market survey anticipates that the search market will end 2010 at around $16.6 billion in size. Meanwhile, Common Sense Advisory’s 2010 forecast for the size of the localization market is currently roughly $17 billion. So the localization market is actually just slightly larger than the search market, though this is a gap that has narrowed rapidly over the years. It is also worth noting that there is very little overlap between these two spending figures—though in my view in the international field there should be much more of an overlap.

More marketing myopia?

Why haven’t translation and localization industries simply not “got” SEO? Theodore Levitt in his famous article “Marketing Myopia” published in the Harvard Business Review in 1960 talked about railroads not running airlines because they were in the business of running railroads rather than in transporting people from A to B. SEO firms exist principally within the marketing mix to generate additional demand for a business. So what exactly is the purpose of localization? In our own case, it’s to serve the needs of international marketers generating demand but that doesn’t appear to be the way localization businesses talk.

Turn around, you’re looking in the wrong direction

If you study the localization industry’s literature and websites you are struck by a very clear obsession with certain key topics:

  • The use of technology
  • Maintaining the quality of translation
  • Minimizing cost
  • The threat from machine translation

The above is interesting because the following topics appear much less frequently:

  • Offering value to the website reader
  • Delivering return on investment
  • Achieving online visibility
  • Using web analytics

Is it me, or does this look like an industry that is firmly looking the wrong way down the track while an express train is hurtling at it? Should the translation industry not have figured out that life had changed some years ago—and is it possibly already too late?

Should SEO be renamed to search marketing?

To be fair, the search marketing industry has not really done itself any favors by allowing the “SEO” tag to become its principal name. The consequence is that “SEO” gives the impression that the industry is made up of geeks working in home offices and knowing how to manipulate search results. To me this is very wide of the mark. The true SEO industry is made up of some of the very brightest people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work with—and they are very close to searchers and web users. Perhaps because “SEOs” need to predict what the user or web visitor will do next, SEOs in general are very perceptive about human nature on the web—as well as understanding how “machine web users” such as search engines and social networks behave.

We SEOs are natural marketers. A few years ago, I adopted the term “search marketing” for my own business having personally spent all of my career in international marketing in some way or other. But the customer base didn’t follow as the “SEO” keyword stuck and we, like everyone else, had to go with the flow. This hasn’t been helpful because it quite probably makes investors view “SEOs” as unpredictable fellows who wear different colored hats and never sport a decent suit to a meeting.

Furthermore, the growing interest in conversion optimization will only exaggerate the role that SEOs play and the importance which needs to be given to understanding users and customers.

Predicting that SEO will run localization in the future

I predict that in 2010, the major translation firms will look to acquire SEO companies in order to blend these services into their existing service offering. In fact, it’s not a difficult prediction for me to make as I’ve already declined several such approaches. I further predict that they will discover that “SEO” does not integrate well into the translation and localization mix. The reason it will not work this way around is because it’s not a natural way of thinking. I believe that translation firms will not succeed in running SEO in much the same way that railroads never actually succeeded in running airlines.

SEO is about understanding the customer and orienting the website and what it offers to the user through search engines and social media. SEO also requires delivering good quality content which will it drives to a particular place by understanding the customer. For me the conclusion is very clear: Search marketing should drive website production—including localization—and not the other way around.

In the context of website marketing, SEO firms are the airlines and translation firms the railroads. It’s time the SEO was truly recognized for the value it offers and allowed the SEO industry to become the mainstream and leading driver within a firm’s marketing operations. This would mean that it would lead the way that localization is run and not vice versa. And SEO firms should be acquiring localization firms and not the other way around.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search

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About The Author: is a linguist who has been specializing in international search since 1997 and is the CEO of WebCertain, the multilingual search agency and Editor-in-Chief of the blog Multilingual-Search.com. You can follow him on Twitter here @andyatkinskruge.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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