January 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Searching Overseas

To successfully reach promising online markets overseas, retailers need to craft a solid search marketing strategy.

With growth in domestic e-commerce sales off their peak of recent years, many U.S.-based online merchants are looking overseas for new customers.

There are plenty of online consumers to reach. More than 80% of the 7 million online Spaniards spend their time searching for goods and services. Russians spent $7.91 billion online in 2007-half in online retail. Consumers from Argentina to Saudi Arabia to Russia and China are flocking to and buying on the web.

But reaching foreign consumers through an effective search marketing strategy presents new challenges.

People across cultures search online in different ways. Keywords vary, and Google is not always the preferred search engine. In some markets, a local search engine can be more popular.

The different ways people search are influenced by their cultural surroundings, language, beliefs and geographical location. Many important keywords are dependent on these factors and cannot be directly translated.

Mixing languages

It is common for non-English-speaking Europeans, for instance, to use a mixture of English and their own language to search the Internet. Take, for example, Johnson & Johnson’s www.babycentre.de campaign. Local German researchers discovered a large volume of search for the keyword kinderdiaper-which is a combination of the German word for children, kinder, and diaper. This kind of local information has been invaluable in helping Johnson & Johnson to target this important and relevant traffic of consumers searching the Internet.

This is an example of international search engine optimization, also known as multilingual SEO. It is the next step in search engine optimization. While SEO focuses on optimizing sites in English, and improving their ranking on English search engines, international SEO is about optimizing sites in many languages and improving their ranking on international search engines.

While Google dominates search in the U.S., that’s not the case in some other countries. The Chinese prefer to search on their local search portal Baidu. In Russia, Yandex holds the majority of the search market. Indians like to search on their native Rediff. Knowing which search engines locals engage with is one of the keys to gaining international traffic. It is also often a more economical route, since less competition on these search engines means lower keyword bids.

English-only retail web sites are becoming a thing of the past, or at least they should be. They overlook 95% of the potential market, since only 5% of the world’s population speaks English. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not enough to literally translate an English-language site into other languages, as that approach would not incorporate important cultural keywords. But by optimizing a web site according to unique cultural search habits, retailers can specifically target particular cultures, and make their products visible in regions where there are often large untapped markets.

Think about which countries would be most suitable for marketing your products. The next step is to secure country top-level domains, such as .jp for Japan, or .fr for France.

Domain name strategy

Google places a high importance on keywords in domain names, so it is also worth identifying local search terms, and looking to see if a suitable domain is available with those terms, for example, buy-shoes-online.xx.

If more than one domain name is being used, be sure to link them correctly. This will ensure that no duplicate content issues occur. For example, a non-www version of a site (i.e., company.com) should be redirected to www.company.com. Or, if there are two different site names (i.e., www.sheridanandco.com and www.michaelsheridan.com), with exactly the same content, they should be linked. In addition, there might be different country-level domain names (.com, .co.uk, etc.), but as long as their content is exactly the same, they should also be linked. The other option is to alter the content on each page. If this linking is done correctly, ‘link-juice’ (the value that a site can pass on to other sites through links) is maintained in one place. That is, the site will not lose any of the quality of its linking power by sharing it with duplicate content sites.

Though Google won’t release its search algorithm, we do know that links to a site are one of its critical ranking criteria. Identify suitable web sites that will provide links from content thematically related to your site’s content to support good search engine rankings. This can be done by researching the local web environment related to a particular site in the language and culture of that site. Ten quality phrases or relevant links within the target country can be more valuable than 100 links from international business directories, such as DirectoryVault.com.

The best links

A link becomes less valuable if your site links back to the site linking to you, so try to avoid this. Keep in mind also that different search engines might favor different types of links within their algorithms. Korea’s most popular search portal, Naver, for example, awards higher value to links from blogs and forums.

Think of links as being like a fine wine. They get better with age. So link-building should be conducted with a long-term perspective and start as soon as a domain has been obtained.

Next, you’ll need a combined paid and natural keyword strategy. First, identify relevant search terms. These should be researched per individual country, and not translated from English content. Mix up your strategy a bit: create a suitable combination of high-volume short-tail and targeted long-tail keywords. For example, the short-tail keyword “retail design” has an average monthly search volume on Google of 1,300. It is a narrow-market yet highly competitive keyword, and, therefore, difficult to rank highly in search results. However, we’ve had much more success with the long-tail keywords “retail design agency” and “full service retail design agency,” which receive 110 and 56 Google searches a month, respectively. Long-tail keywords are made up of a few relevant keywords, and are important as they usually have less competition.

Spelling mistakes can help you improve your ranking in natural search results. If there are many searches for a misspelled keyword related to your product, take advantage of it-it will likely have far less competition and be easier to rank high. Attempt to incorporate the word into web site content, such as in an FAQ section. You can use the misspelled keyword in a question, then provide an answer that corrects the spelling or misconception.

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