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SEO For Europe Is More Than Just Using Different Languages

3 February 2010 BY

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This post was originally posted by Bas van den Beld on Searchengineland

If you ask any search marketer what the main issue is when trying to optimize your website(s) for Europe he will tell you: language. But there is more to keep in mind when trying to win over Europeans.

Europe consists of fifty countries. If you think that means you will have to optimize for fifty languages, you’re wrong. The European countries which are part of the European Union together already have 23 official languages. But that’s just the European Union. Count in the rest of Europe and you can add many more.

The “problem” of focusing exclusively on languages in Europe is that its not one country, one language. It’s one country, many languages. Take the Netherlands for example. With only 17 million people living on a little piece of ground which (41 thousand square kilometers, which is about 16 thousand square miles) the official language is Dutch, but Frisian is also accepted as a official language. Next to that there are about 8 or 9 dialects, but when optimizing for websites you don’t have to take those in account.

When traveling south from the Netherlands it gets more complicated. In Belgium there are three official languages: Dutch, French and German. For the Belgians its therefore is very tempting to copy and paste the Dutch, French and German content and think you’re done. Think again. Dutch spoken in Belgium is a different kind of Dutch than that spoken in the Netherlands. And the same goes for the French compared to what they are speaking in France.

Getting the picture? You can probably guess what I will be saying about the countries when traveling to the south even more. How many official languages do you need to handle in France? Surprise! Only one. The French are considered to be very stubborn and very proud of their country. That translates into the language where, though about ten times the size of the Netherlands and with five times more people living there, they only speak one language. A complete different situations than with their neighbors further south. In Spain Castillian Spanish is the official language, spoken by 74% of the population but the Spanish also speak Catalan, Galician and Basque.

So now you get the picture: Europe has many countries and many languages. Some say there are over 200 official languages to take in account. Others also look at the dialects and then count over a 1000. So language really is a big issue when optimizing sites for Europeans.

“Ok,” I can hear you saying. “Thanks! Now I know there are many languages, so let’s get to work and translate and optimize our sites.” Stop, wait right there. There’s more…

Language is one thing, but Europe is a strange continent in which you have other things to take in account when optimizing. For one thing, there is the cultural aspect. I’m talking about the differences in culture in the way people live and think.

Last year TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington was part of a panel discussing the differences between Europe and the US at the internet marketing event LeWeb in Paris. He decided to be his usual self and became somewhat “rude” when accusing the Europeans of being lazy. Wherever did he get that idea? Here’s how: the days before he was invited by the organizer of the event to join in on a “typical” French lunch. And that means it will take a couple of hours in which you wine and dine. Arrington believed that the French therefore were lazy, because they prefer long lunches to working hard.

He could not have been more wrong. Yes, the French do like to take long lunches, but they also work later towards dinner-time. In fact, dinner time in France is typically not before 8PM. But there was an even bigger mistake Arrington made: with his statement he showed he had no idea of what the differences in European cultures are. Taking a step back northbound for example, to the Netherlands, lunch time is very different than in France. There lunch most of the time consists of a sandwich which is eaten within half an hour. Then again, when its 6PM most Dutch will be out of the office, heading home to have dinner early.

“So,” you say, “You guys eat at different times, what does that have to do with optimizing my webpages?” . Well, everything. The Europeans have different lifestyles, which means they also have different online behavior. They are online at different hours and most probably also looking for different kind of topics, thus searching differently.

Europe is a complicated continent. I could go on for hours. I will get back on different kind of issues in future columns, but there is one more I’d like to highlight here.

Let’s combine the two issues discussed above: language and culture. Do not, I repeat, do not, look at a list of languages from different countries, find the overlapping languages and target them with one site. You will be in big trouble. I already mentioned the difference between Netherlands Dutch and Belgian Dutch when it comes to language. There are more countries in Europe with that issue: in both Germany and Austria for example they speak German. But the language barrier is bigger than just the differences within the language.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that every country in Europe has its own culture. Hey, we fought many wars (and still do) because people felt they didn’t “belong” in one country but should have their own. And though they might speak the same language, they feel they are completely different. And that causes the final issue I’m discussing here: targeting.

For example, when targeting Austria, which is located just below Germany, it’s tempting to set up a German site and use it to target the Austrians also. After all, the language is quite similar. However, chances are you will not get much traffic from Austrians. Why? Simply because the Austrians do not trust the German websites. If they see the shop is on a German .de domain they will be more reluctant to buy a product than when it’s on an Austrian domain. Just because they have a different culture. The same might go for trying to sell products to a Dutchman and targeting him with a Belgian site.

In some countries there are even differences within the country. Take for example Spain, where Basques and Catalan really are living their own lives and where most feel not connected, even hostile in some cases, towards the country itself. A quick example to show how much: last year the Spanish national soccer team won the European Championships. Where in Madrid people were celebrating on the streets, in Barcelona it was relatively quiet. It was after all the Spanish team which had won, not the Catalan team.

So, lots of things to take in account when optimizing for Europe. How to handle all of these language and cultural differences? A couple of tips to close off with:

  • Research the differences in languages.
  • Hire a native speaker to write content.
  • Know the history of the areas you are targeting.
  • Get domains and write sites for every specific country
  • The best way to get a feeling of the differences: travel. Visit some of the countries you are targeting and see how people live. It will help you make your site better.
  • Talk to Europeans: If you don’t have the resources for traveling to Europe be sure to talk to Europeans and get an idea of how they live. Remember: Europeans are everywhere: at events, living all over the world or online.
  • Too much work? Too complicated? Hire or work with a European firm. They can help you get the differences sorted out and translate and optimize your sites properly.

Finally, if this all seems like too much fuss to go through and you don’t feel like optimizing for Europe, think again. It’s a huge market. Europeans search more than any other continent, are more active on the web than any other part of the world and there are 731 million possible clients out there. So it might take a little bit of work, it could well be worth it.

AUTHORED BY:
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Bas van den Beld is a speaker, trainer and online marketing strategist. Bas is the founder of Stateofdigital.com. -- You can hire Bas to speak, train or consult.
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