Watch Your “Accents” When Doing International Paid Search

Today I’m speaking at SMX East on international paid search, and I’ll be putting forward a strategy for multinational search advertising which could lead to a cache of buried treasure. It starts with everyone’s quest for best practice and excellence, which ironically sometimes causes us to overlook the significance of the mundane. Consider the humble keyboard. This device, especially when it comes to multinational search, is guilty of grossly inflating costs for paid search marketers on millions of searches. Why?

The online versus offline debate generally ignores the fact that all searches start in the physical world with a human brain directing fingers to depress relevant keys on a keyboard. Other forms of character input have been invented, including voice and various types of joystick devices, but keyboards are the primary way searchers express their needs regardless of whether the language is Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic or Farsi.

But keyboards can be problematic, especially when a searcher is typing queries in languages that rely on accents to inflect meaning. The reason this issue is rarely discussed is because keyboards have a more limited impact in English. For marketers whose mother tongue is English, discussing the impact a keyboard can have on an effective search marketing campaign is not going to make the agenda of any “serious” meeting.

I’m currently in France, spending time researching and exploring French search behaviors and comparing notes with French colleagues. One objective is to clarify the French accented character question: are they used or aren’t they?

The role of accents in paid search

It turns out the keyboard has a major impact in French because most accents are a good long finger stretch to the periphery of the keyboard and there are quite a few accents too. It is easier to type characters without accents than those with. It has long been generally assumed that the French frequently drop accents when they search. But do they really? If so, to what extent?

And does this really matter anyway? Surely Google “normalizes” all accents giving them the equivalent results whether the accent is present or not. Google is certainly very astute when it comes to accents, dealing with them in several different ways. But its approach changes from time to time, and you need to keep a vigilant watch to spot the shifts—especially when it comes to international SEO. But accents play a significant role in paid search as well.

Consider just one accent—the French acute or “aigu.” It raises some interesting questions for search marketers. But note that the behavior of this accent is different to others in French and not necessarily the same as those in other languages. Each must be considered on its individual merits.

An “acute” impact on searcher behavior

Currently, the French acute is normalized in Google’s organic search results. In other words, you are presented with the same set of results whether you type the accent on your keyboard or not—with some slight variations if your query triggers universal search results. Intriguingly this is not true for paid search results, where the acute accent is treated as a separate character. This is partly because the French acute accent does sometimes distinguish between similarly spelt words which have different meanings. As a result, French searchers’ use or non-use of the acute—and Google’s treatment of it within the AdWords system—is costing less vigilant search marketers real cash.

To what extent are French searchers using accents in their queries? The AdWords keyword tool offers some good insights.

We took six single keywords—each requiring an acute accent—and compared the search volumes for the first 150 keywords containing the single keyword. This way we were looking at single and double keywords and expanding our sample sizes.

Vive la différence

Our chart below compares monthly French search volumes, showing that the use of accents varied significantly between different keywords. Our first keywords “équipements” (equipement / supplies) and “météo” (weather) had the highest accent loss whereas “téléphones” (telephones) and “photo appareils numérique” (digital cameras) had the highest use of accents. Why the differences?

Accent Search Volumes in French

In the case of économique and équipements one possible explanation for the non-use of accents is that the accent features on the first letter of the word. It is accepted practice in French not to use accents on characters if they are capitalized. My colleagues agreed they would often use initial capitals in searching which is not shown in the AdWords system—but this would significantly increase the number of searches showing as “accentless” and featuring for accentless inventory regardless of the fact that the original spelling was fully correct with implied accents.

The long tail includes accents—at least for now

If you use long tail techniques in your paid search, deploying exact matches in place of broad matches, you should test acute-accented words with the same word, accentless. You should pay particular attention to any words where the very first character should be accented. You should see differing clickthrough rates and lower cost on one or other version. The net benefit is that you’ll often be featured on search results with less competition or broad matched competition giving you a potentially significant financial advantage.

Google, of course is expanding its potential inventory through this treatment of the “aigu.” And if you happened to be in the telecoms market, based on our research, using this strategy could improve your performance on a very conservative 22 million French searches per month—where even a very small improvement will go along way! And noting that 75% of searches in our study did not feature accents, for some this tactic will be the veritable “poule aux oeufs d’or” (the hen that lays the golden eggs)!

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 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 You can follow him on Twitter here @andyatkinskruge.

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  • Andreas Pfister

    Very important topic for the multinational search column. Typing behaviors differ a lot…
    Good thing that we can target all these keyword variations in paid search. In SEO this gets a bit more difficult…
    Good post!


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