Mythbusting Global Search Fallacies
Do people really search in English rather than their local languages? That's what Google's Keyword Tool seems to be saying. So that must mean English is truly a "Lingua Franca" -- or is something even more mysterious going on with the Google numbers?
Inspired by Stephan Spencer’s superb series of SEO Myths That Won’t Die, I figured it was time to put right those international search marketing myths that I hear repeated every day at conferences or on websites from people claiming to be “expert” in global matters. Frequently, the source of the problem is so-called “experts” do have a genuinely good knowledge of SEO working in English, then gain a little knowledge of how things work in other languages and make the assumption that they have cracked the problem.
Myth: English is the global lingua Franca
I heard this spoken in a webinar just recently and oh it did make me chuckle. As I have discussed previously in this column, words may look English and may indeed have been adopted from English, but in the context of the language they are being used in they often mean different things.
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s have a look at search terms used in Germany that are definitely not German. A good example is to compare “vacation” with its German equivalent word of “Urlaub.” Google’s keyword tool tells you that “vacation” is searched for in German in Germany some 5,400 times monthly, and in broad match you’re told it appears 201,000 times. Quod est demonstratum or Q.E.D—which is Latin by the way—that’s pretty convincing data that Germans do indeed search in English.
But wait, the German word “Urlaub” is searched for 368,000 in the exact match form—and a colossal 6,120,000 times in broad match. So do Germans search for “vacation” or are they really choosing “Urlaub” which has 68 times the volume? If you compare searches for “Urlaub” to population, 0.4% of the total German population (as a ratio) are searching for “Urlaub” each month (bearing in mind we’re looking at an exact match on very generic search—there are actually many more long tail searches).
If we reverse the ratio it would mean that to justify 5,400 monthly searches for “vacation” you would need a population in Germany of 1.3 million or roughly 1.4% of the German population. Now as it happens, 12% or 10 million of the German population is officially not German—most of these are Turkish but there are many people from France, the UK, the US and many other countries living in Germany. In fact, there are 2,400 Turkish searches for the Turkish “tatil” meaning “vacation,” 880 searches for the French “vacances” and 720 searches for the Dutch version “Vakantie” every month—not to mention Japanese, Greek, Polish and Vietnamese varieties. Note that these figures are all based on checking terms in “German” within Germany—not the respective language settings.
Immigration represents an opportunity too!
The fact is that the immigrant population of Germany is greater than the total population of Sweden, Hungary or Israel. Added to that, there are more than 133 million foreign visitors to Germany each year or on average just over 11 million each month—many of them from the US.
So we can safely draw the conclusion that native German speakers actually prefer to search in German—and not in the English “Lingua Franca,” and there is a strong chance that a large number of our “vacation” searches in Germany are done by non-German speakers. Nor should we believe too much the “data” we see in Google’s keyword tool without understanding whence it came.
Myth: People will always search for technical terms like “mesothelioma” in English
It’s frequently argued that in medical, scientific or medical sectors, people everywhere will use the most popular English terms for simplicity. I completely agree. It is completely the case that words we may recognize as English words are searched for by speakers of many different languages. But get this—most of those words are derived from Latin or Greek and don’t really belong wholly to English anyway. Words such as “video” (Latin), “telephone” (Greek), “photograph” (Greek) or “microphone” (Greek) all started in ancient Europe as did “amateur” (Latin) “taxonomy” (Greek), “portfolio” (Latin), “domain” (Latin) and “detergent” (Greek), so by definition they are global words. Asbestosis and mesothelioma by the way are both originally from the Greek.
Does this point actually make any difference to our search strategy? Yes it does, in the sense that as these words have always been part of or connected to a “Lingua Franca,” you cannot use them to draw the conclusion that everyone, everywhere is searching in English. They’re not—or we’d also be able to show that Germans like to search in Turkish!
Myth: The typical search query is 3 words or more
At university, I spent several weeks trying to research a study into how to define what a “word” is. You try it—argue it among your friends, you’ll see it’s not actually that easy. Take the UK English expression “football boots” which translates into the US “soccer cleats.” This is one idea but two words, right? Or is it? “foot” and “ball” are both words in their own right and have been combined here to create a new idea. Supposing we spelled the search term “foot ball boots” would that mean it had become three words? After all, it’s still the same single idea.
Looking at languages which regularly create compounds like “football”—such as the German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages—you end up with concepts such as “Hubschrauberlandeplatz” which actually means “helicopter landing pad” in English. How many words are each of those expressions? The German version actually has 22 characters and the English just 20 characters—so they are not really very different in length. Or there’s my favorite example from Dutch—claimed to be its longest word, “Hottentottententententoonstelling” which in a single word meaning “Hottentotten tent exhibition.” I confess, I haven’t checked the search volume on that one but I’m guessing that demand is somewhat limited—and I definitely can’t claim to have a client who is interested in targeting it. Suggestions, please, on a postcard…
At a conference in Germany, an English-speaking delegate asked if the number of words searched for in Germany was up to the typical US level (at that time) of around 3 words per query. A well-known speaker on the panel said it was “nearer two.” The questioner probably went away thinking that Germans are less sophisticated in their search behaviors—but hopefully you’ve seen from the above examples that that is not the case.
Myth: Use simplified Chinese for Baidu”
I’ve heard this advice given out so many times—I wish I had a dollar for every occasion. Simplified Chinese is not actually a language—it’s a character set. It was introduced principally in the mid-fifties and early sixties as a means of making complex characters easier to write and was aimed at trying to improve literacy. But it is no more a language than the “Latin alphabet” which is used for many European languages.
Simplified Chinese is closely associated with the Mandarin language—and the Cantonese language of southern China and Hong Kong is more closely associated with the Traditional Chinese or original character set. But Mandarin is also written in some parts of the world—Taiwan for instance—using traditional characters and Cantonese can also be written using simplified characters.
It’s all about research and targeting
The intriguing thing about Baidu is that it actually copes with searches using either character set producing relevant results—which pretty much contradicts the advice in our myth. You can even check the Baidu keyword suggestion tool using either simplified characters, traditional characters or even Pinyin which is a Latin-alphabet way of inputting Mandarin Chinese. So the key point is target your users using searches the way they search—that may mean simplified characters and the Mandarin language because that forms the bulk of the volume—but don’t ignore other opportunities if they are around.
Above is an image of the truly complex Chinese keyboard for inputting the language—you’ll notice that it’s—yep—basically a QWERTY keyboard. You may not have been expecting that. And finally, the reason why the expression “English is a global Lingua Franca” makes me chuckle is because “Lingua Franca” is an Italian expression from the days when Italian seafarers dominated world trade—see the irony?