May 29, 2012, 1:50 PM

Many consumers search the web in more than one language

It’s a sign of English becoming Europe’s quasi-official language, Greenlight says.

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A consumer in New York will search the web in English, a Berliner in German and someone in Shanghai in Mandarin. At least, that’s what marketers might assume. But it’s not always the case, suggests a new survey from U.K.-based digital marketing agency Greenlight.

The survey of 500 consumers, mostly in Europe and North America, found 76% at least occasionally search online in more than one language. That’s particularly true in Europe where more than 90% of consumers in several major European markets said they have searched in a language other than their own, including 100% of respondents in Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Belgium, which has three official languages, is not surprising, says Adam Bunn, director of search engine optimization at Greenlight. But the reasons for the high numbers in Spain and Italy are not so obvious.

“The fact that Italy and Spain top the chart with 100% of respondents claiming to search in multiple languages, despite reasonably homogenized language use, is possibly a testament to the position of English as the quasi-official language of Europe and the relative prevalence of English-language web pages,” Bunn says.

He notes a Greenlight study from 2010 showed that the United Kingdom produced the most web pages per person among European countries at 17, compared with 10 for Spain and six for Italy. “Presumably as well as there being more English spam on the web, this also means there is more high-quality English content to be searched for by Europeans as well,” he says.

Even in English-speaking countries, however, it’s fairly common for consumers to say they search the web in more than one language. 44% of Canadians say so, along with 42% of respondents in the U.K. and 35% from the U.S.

Here is the percentage of consumers in each of the following countries who say they sometimes search the web in more than one language:

  • Belgium, 100%
  • Spain, 100%
  • Italy, 100%
  • Portugal, 95%
  • Netherlands, 94%
  • Germany, 91%
  • Canada, 44%
  • United Kingdom, 42%
  • United States, 35%

Of the 500 consumers surveyed, 70% live in Europe, 25% North America, 3% Asia and 2% elsewhere.

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