SEM Lessons From The Fall Of The Berlin Wall

This week in Germany world leaders gathered to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The tearing down of the Wall, a potent symbol of East German oppression since 1961, marked the end of one era and the start of a new one. Strange though it may sound, the tearing down of the Wall in 1989 was a significant influence on how we do search marketing in Europe today.

When doing SEO in Europe, you are bound to run into some issues which that originated in some way from the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this column I’ll try to give you a little historical insight which will help you look at search in Europe through that lens, offering a somewhat different perspective than usual. With this background you’ll benefit when entering the European market by knowing more about the wants and needs of your target audiences, increasing your chances of actually reaching them.

In one day, Europe suddenly became much bigger

One of the obvious consequences of the fall of the Wall is the fact that Europe got bigger. Where before capitalism and therefore business (and search) was focused on Western Europe, the potential market is now more than twice that size. Countries like Poland, Czech and Romania now are big growing markets, especially on the affiliate marketing front.

With the bigger market there is more money flowing around. That is a direct consequence of the tearing down of the Wall. Eastern Germany was almost bankrupt when the Wall went down. Because of Western Europeans coming into Eastern Europe there is a lot more money which went to the East.

The rise of the European Union

In my last column I talked about legal issues in Europe. Many legal issues are caused by the way the European Union works, designed to protect European citizens. In 1989 the European Union was called the European Economic Community (EEC). That was the case until 1993. The EEC wasn’t by far the size of the current European Union. It was only the Western European countries which were members. And they were just working together on some economic issues, not on other regulations.

Eastern European countries weren’t allowed in the Union at first. The German councilor Helmut Kohl fought for their rights and succeeded. After 1993 the European Union saw big growth, and with this growth regulation also started to expand. Many current regulations come from the thought of giving all Europeans the protection and freedom they want and need. Keep in mind one thing: with all the different European countries one institution which regulates may seem to make a lot of regulations. But at least now all the regulations are the same for every country, unlike the fifty different rules marketers might have had to comply with just a few short years ago.

Common coin: The Euro

In 1989 the French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand was at first no fan of the German unification which came shortly after the Wall went down. But he did take the opportunity to get something done he had wanted to do for a while: the introduction of the European coin, what would later be the Euro. He originally wanted this coin just to keep the German Mark, which was very strong, under control. But indirectly he changed the way you do business in Europe. In 1991 was decided to introduce the coin which has been around for a decade now. This decision could never have occurred without the fall of the Berlin Wall.


The fall of the German Wall had many political consequences, both inside and outside European countries. The best example is Germany itself. After 1989 Helmut Kohl quickly came up with a plan to unify East and West Germany. The German unification still has its influence on the way we work. primarily because now Germany is by far the biggest market in Europe. That wouldn’t have been the case without unification. And Germans need special care. They are very protective of their “own people.” It’s not a coincidence that its the Germans who are attacking Google in different ways. This comes from the German mindset—they have strong protectionistic instincts regarding their country. The fact that German councilor Angela Merkel is herself an original East German citizen might give you a little bit more insight in the way she thinks about big capitalistic companies like Google.

The political climate changed significantly with the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it still works through in the way we do business in Europe. If you optimize for Germany you have to keep in mind the differences between East and West Germans and you have to keep in mind the history to understand why Germans respond (or don’t respond) to what happens on the web.

Google alternatives: Yandex and Seznam

Finally, something directly search-related. Europe is pretty much dominated by Google. In every country Google is the biggest—with two exceptions. In Russia, Yandex is the biggest search engine by market share. In Czech there is Seznam that’s more popular than Google. These search engines have origins in the way things were before 1989. They didn’t exist then, but they were founded with the thoughts and ideas of the people who lived in Eastern Europe before communism fell. That is an entire different mindset than engineers who created US search engines. So if you want to optimize for them you have to think differently.

What if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen?

What would search in Europe be like if the Berlin Wall hadn’t gone down and communism in Eastern Europe was still flourishing? The “what if” question is always difficult but it could have looked like this in Europe:

  • Yandex and Seznam would dominate the entire Eastern European area. Google wouldn’t probably even get a percentage.
  • The potential market in which search marketers could work would have been just half of what it is today.
  • Eastern Europe would probably be broke, so you wouldn’t be able to get much profit there.
  • There would be more different regulations to work with. Every country would think of their own.
  • Instead of a single, unified currency, you would have to work with more than 50 different currencies.
  • In all it would have been a lot less interesting market to work in.

So why this lesson in European history then? What is that worth for working in search in Europe? Well, a lot. Let me give you some takeaways:

  • If you look at Europe don’t just look at France, Britain and Spain. Also consider Poland, Romania, Russia and other Eastern European states too. These are big markets with lots of opportunities.
  • As in the US, politics plays a big role in Europe. Be aware of the political situation and it can work in your benefit.
  • Chances are that in Europe if you want to do business you’ll run into European rules. Keep that in mind and keep in mind where Europeans come from: a divided continent, trying to work together. It could have been a lot worse with lots of different regulations everywhere. Now, be sure to look at the European Union first.
  • Though Google is the biggest, there are other interesting search engines that offer opportunities for smart marketers. Try looking at Yandex and Seznam if you target Eastern Europeans. You might be surprised about the ROI you can gain from a well executed search marketing campaign.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search | Search Engines: Outside USA


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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