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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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A Plea To Let International Users Decide What Language They Speak

Last week Bill Hunt wrote an excellent piece in this column called Understanding The SEO Challenges Of Language Detection. Bill also said he would not cover the philosophical arguments relating to which content users are directed to based on their location. Well I’m going to jump right in and try to do just that!

I was originally going to call this piece “A Letter from Austria”, as I was always a great fan of Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” broadcast on UK radio and because I’m writing this post beneath the Gerlitzer mountain near Villach in southern Austria. Then I realized that the real point I need to make is not about Austria, but about putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes and looking at life from his perspective and from his “center.” Since “The Other Guy” is actually your customer, this could have significant impact on your success or failure in international search marketing.

Austria is a particularly interesting case in point. It tends to be tagged onto international campaigns after Germany and is more often regarded as an extension of the reach of the German language than as an independent market in its own right. Yet, it has a very different position in Europe than Germany with much deeper connections to parts of the east and south of Europe. In addition to Germany, Austria borders with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Switzerland and Italy as well as little Liechtenstein. Not bad for one small nation of 8 million people.

Heading to the frontier-land of search

What this means is that many Austrians live near borders and those borders are often also language borders. While Austria speaks German—mostly—and while there are some strong accents and dialects—even for a non-native German speaker like me who acquired his German-language knowledge in the far north of Germany—it’s not too difficult to understand and make yourself understood. In addition to bordering with German-speaking nations including Germany, Switzerland and even Italy, Austria’s borders open out to speakers of romance languages (Italian), Slavic languages (Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian) and even to a language that doesn’t fit in the Indo-European family of languages at all—namely Hungarian.

In this far more southerly frontier-land of Austria, it’s not unusual to arrive via Llubjana Airport in Slovenia, stay in Austria and have lunch in Italy. Vienna is further away than Venice, since there happens to be a range of mountains to the north of here (the Alps) which also means that travelling to Munich in Germany may look like a short distance but takes 5 hours—roughly the same time it takes to drive to Milan in Italy.

How is this connected to international search marketing? In Europe there are many nations, languages and borders and this situation is repeated many times over—and Europe is not the only continent where this occurs with similar issues in many parts of Asia. If I’m an Austrian with my world centered on Villach, targeting me as an “Austrian” is, in many ways, missing the point. For instance, supposing your business is about promoting retail outlets and your nearest Austrian outlet is in Salzburg, you might miss the opportunity to persuade me to visit your outlet in Italian Udine which is less than an hour away compared with the 3 hour trek to north-of-the-Alps Salzburg.

Don’t tell me what I speak

My concern is that global search marketers are increasingly drifting towards automatically putting website users and customers into buckets (though they get called “segments” or “locales”) with a considerable drift towards using IP addresses to target website content—and especially language—relevantly to users. The argument goes that “IP targeting is much more accurate than it used to be.” This is true, I agree entirely. But just because you can identify where I’m logging onto the internet does not mean that you really know anything about me.

If you live in Austria and work in Italy or live in Slovenia and work in Austria or live in Belgium and work in Germany, you’re probably going to be adept at working in various languages. But here we’re talking here about marketing and if I want to sell to you I have to speak your language. And in many cases, I can’t tell that from where you connect. The alternatives, such as recognizing language settings in the browser, don’t work that well either. Many users have default “En” settings for language when that is not what they speak at all.

How do I target users everywhere successfully?

Years ago I spent quite a lot of time working on market segmentation and on identifying different segments to target. It is fascinating but arduous work. The great thing about search, I believe, is that users “self-segment.” If I’m a 70-year old granny, and I search for “teenager’s socks” am I a fun-fashionable-fab granny—or simply one looking for a present for my granddaughter? In search, we really don’t care.

My advice to search marketers designing their international search marketing programs and websites is always to build in two parameters to manage the website content most relevantly since these two factors both matter to me as a user or customer:

  • Let me choose the language I speak.
  • Identify my location and give me relevant content such as store locations, or pricing, centered on my actual location not on “Austria” because my location happens to sit within Austrian borders—but don’t touch my language.

A combination of local domains—which users and search engines both understand in terms of geo-locating website content—with location-specific and not language-specific content that centers around my automatically identified location would be perfect. Though please let me change my location if I need to. Yes, I know I’m greedy, but then I’m the customer. The great thing about this approach is it’s SEO-friendly too!

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