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The No-nos of Using Online Translators when entering a Foreign Market

One of the biggest challenges of entering a foreign market is the language barrier.  Translating everything from website content to ad copies can be a big task. While some look at this and ultimately decide it’s not something they want to deal with, others face the challenge.

The latter group of risk takers then filters into two groups: winners and losers. The winners either have a grand slam product or are finding success in the new foreign market because they have taken all the correct steps to translate the online information and advertising aspects of their business.

The losers, on the other hand, could potentially be going wrong in a number of categories and have absolutely no idea. Quite often, a business with a lot of potential tests a foreign market and quickly decides they won’t do well because they aren’t seeing results and assume the foreign market is the problem. In all actuality, a major part of the problem is that business’ ability to communicate with their target audience and potential customers.  Most of the time, this can be attributed to poor translations.

A marketing team can’t expect to communicate with a foreign audience the way they do in their native language! Beyond cultural expectations, sometimes wording in one language doesn’t translate well in foreign languages, even when it is done correctly. This is especially true for instances when a translation is going from different language groups like Latin languages to Slavic languages and vice versa.  When an online translator is used, these mistakes happen quite often and cost businesses’ international success.

This blog is intended to show you a few easy mistakes that are made when website owners and advertisers make big no-nos by online translating their website content, keyword lists, and ad copies into a foreign language. Given my knowledge of Russian, I selected the language as an example for readers. After explaining the typical issues of online translators, I will offer a number of examples of common Russian online translation mistakes to help advertisers evaluate their current websites, keyword lists, and ad copies for the better. By the end of this article, readers should have a good sense of the types of problems online translations can create and the appropriate steps to take to avoid these potential problems in the future.

What is an online translator?

Defining an online translator may seem a bit silly because we all understand it’s an easy way to take text, plug it into a machine, select the correct languages, and get a translation within seconds. However, what you may not know is that when the translator is working with non-English text, it first makes a translation to English and then to the desired language of your choice.  This gives the machine an extra opportunity to confuse the text and give incorrect results by mixing the machine’s knowledge of multiple languages together.

What kinds of businesses typically use online translators?

Small businesses with a lack of resources may be more susceptible to use an online translator. However, when bigger businesses get antsy or simply want to “test out” the market, they also turn to a machine like Google translate. When advertisers find relative success with this method, a company then defaults to this and ignores the true potential of correct translations.

What are some typical problems seen when using an online translator for digital advertising?

Despite online translators becoming more intelligent, there are still a number of ways they inaccurately translate text.  I selected a few examples for keyword selection and ad copy text to give a good idea of some typical mistakes that may be negatively impacting a business’ international digital advertising efforts.

Keyword Selection

When looking up important keywords that are relevant to landing pages, a business will typically take something based on their English versions. By translating this list, a user may get a good portion of what they need. Still they must consider all the variations that may be in their translated landing pages and typical search queries.

Travel related websites are common businesses that offer international versions of their websites in a number of languages, so I used this as an example.  For travel or accommodation sites, the word “rent” is a pretty commonly needed keyword.  I ran a series of tests for this keyword to better exemplify how tricky this can get using an online translator to select the keyword.

After entering the word “rent,” the online translator actually gives a very detailed breakdown of the amount of possibilities for this word.  While some of the words seem like they are worth bidding on, there are a few that are confusing due to the number of definitions associated with the word, and also a number of words that are unrelated to room rentals.

rent online translator

When I specified the intention by entering “to rent,” Google translate gave me the best verb.  It didn’t offer the 12 other verbs that were in the previous translation results for rent that a user could enter as a search query.

to rent online translator

However, in context and when combined with a noun, the translator selects a different verb that didn’t appear in any of the previous translations for “rent or “to rent.”

rent a hotel online translator

I then took the phrase and put it back into the translator to figure out what it meant from Russian to English.   The translator gave me the word “stay,” which generally follows the idea of accommodations somewhere but does not match the translation I intended to get and originally entered in English.

stay online translator

I then broke down the phrase to make sure it made sense. The second word produced a bunch of results for hotel, so anyone without language skills could understand that was correct. The first word would then likely mean to rent, but I still tested it. The machine translator instead presented  a number of other definitions that had nothing to do with rentals.

release online translator

By this point, if I were a digital advertiser trying to select keywords, I would likely get rid of this translation all together and stick to the first results that were easy to follow and made sense.  As it turns out, despite the way the phrase was re-translated from Russian back to English, this actually is a common term used for hotel rentals. Still it didn’t otherwise show up in the online translations for “rent” or “to rent.”  Without actual language knowledge or the energy to sift through all of these words and get to the bottom of this, a very useful and typical verb relating to rentals would be excluded from the advertiser’s keyword list.

Ad Copies:

Beyond establishing a useful keyword list and finding your target audience, creating effective ad copies is crucial to making conversions happen.

I again selected a common business and basic idea for an ad copy to show how something really simple can go really wrong.  As it is stereotypically known that Russians wear fur coats and they are quiet popular winter fashion items, I tested an exact ad copy I saw for fur coats by typing the English text into Google translate.

The intended English ad copy reads, “Mink fur coats for sale.” However, the translation reads “Mink Coat for Sale”

fur coats online translator

The Russian language has a specific word for fur coat. The word doesn’t have the words fur or coat in it but is just a specific word that means “fur coat.” Russians will only refer to a fur coat with this word but the online translator instead uses the word “coat” to translate it – completely leaving out the one keyword it actually needs. Technically, what the online translator has done is correct but it probably won’t show for searches for fur coats and very few people would click on an ad copy using this wording because it is so strange.

As another example, I entered, “Buy a watch online,” which incorrectly translates to “Buy watch online,” using the verb for “to watch” as in watch a TV show.  An advertiser would not want to use this phrase or the verb “to watch” to make wrist watch sales.

watch online translator

Clearly, there are a number of ways an online translator can go wrong. Even native speakers without translating experience or SEO/SEM knowledge may also inaccurately create keyword lists or ad copies.  Trained bi-lingual SEO and SEM experts are the key to sucess.

Why are native speakers and search experts so vital?

At this point, some may be questioning the legitimacy of this article because they are getting results using online translators to help create keywords and ad copies. Yes, they may work to a certain extent but a native speaker is going to contribute much more without making mistakes common to machine translators.

  • Native speakers who were also educated in the same language provide the most accurate and consistent work. Still just because someone is bilingual doesn’t mean they can easily translate something. Translating is a learned and acquired skill. It takes time, practice, and a lot of thought to accurately convey a message from one language to another.
  • Native speakers are familiar with cultural nuances and the correct call to action phrases. For example, in English we may say “Hurry! Sale ends Friday!” but in Russian a more common phrase is “Rush,” which would sound a little strange to native English speakers in the US.
  • Due to grammar and language rules, words can take on a completely different meaning based on context and word combinations. Native speakers recognize certain keywords or phrases that a business should be bidding on that a computer will not!

These factors significantly contribute to a company’s overall ability to communicate well with their target audience in an effective way that drives results.


  • If you have used online translators – you need to sift through everything to weed out the junk that is holding you back from reaching your full potential and wasting your money
  • Use humans – native humans! A knowledge of the language and search is especially important for creating useful keyword lists and ad copies
  • Experiment- a simple translation may not work!  Sometimes it takes a few tries to correctly communicate your brand and message in another language.


  • Hire a native! If you take serious steps to enter a foreign market, hiring sufficient amount of people with foreign language skills and the right professional background could do wonders.
  • More often than not, agencies are equipped with experienced translators that can provide the help you need.
  • Search engine help: Check with the search engine for their assistance in translating.  Below are a few helpful pointers.
    • Regional Google offers free outsourced translation for bigger clients. A wait period should be expected.
    • Yandex offers free translation and optimization through English speaking account managers who are native Russians
    • Baidu offers referrals for translation support



Melissa McDonald is the International Marketing Manager at Yandex, Russia's leading search engine, which offers free English to Russian translation and optimization for advertisers. Melissa also regularly blogs for RussianSearchMarketing.com, a news and information resource for digital advertising in Russia.