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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Beware English Keywords That Aren't Really English

English-speaking marketers who are about to take their first steps in international markets frequently want to know if they can “get away with” using English keywords in their early paid search campaigns. At first sight, this appears to be a question which is seeking a “get out of jail free” card—in other words I’ve been landed with an international project but I don’t know where to start and would rather do it the simplest way I can. But wait, there’s more to it than that.

The relationship between languages, people and the development of new ideas has a lot to do with how keywords are formed. First, no languages are an island and in fact never have been. Where I live in the UK there are many towns with Danish origins from the days of the Danelaw when the Danes ruled this part of England—places such as Wetherby or Thorpe Willoughby. By that stage the Romans had already been here and left their Latin mark on the language—Eboracum for “York” for instance—and the Danes were followed by the Vikings and then the French-speaking Normans. In fact, the Norman invasion of England generated, for what we today know as “English,” something like 60% of the vocabulary!

New inventions, new keywords

When a language doesn’t have a word for something—because its a new invention perhaps—speakers of that language will frequently adopt the words they first hear in another language. Thus you can roughly trace the route “coffee” took from its Arabic-speaking heartlands through southern Europe to the north. So it’s not surprising that modern technology finds its terms being rapidly adopted by a wide range of languages creating new vocabulary and generating lots of keywords that are—apparently—English.

The result is that when doing keyword research in English in a country which speaks another language, you’ll often find English keywords popping up. But what does that mean for our international rollout strategy?

There are five main ways that keywords pop up that are spelled the same as the original English:

  • English keywords that used to be English but have been adopted by another language for other purposes
  • English keywords that are technical and universal and have the same meaning throughout the world
  • English keywords that coincide with a local and different word
  • English keywords that are—hmm—well English but are not the “normal” term in a particular market
  • English keywords that were not originally English as we adopted them

Hey! You’ve stolen our keywords!

One of the strange phenomenons about speakers of languages adopting words from other folks is that they have a nasty habit of, well, using them for something completely different! If a German asks you for a “handy” for instance, he’s not looking for help but for a mobile phone. Or if it’s a “beamer” he wants, that’s not a fast car, but a projector to run his PowerPoint slides.

It’s the same word… or is it?

Business to business marketers often face the challenge that the keywords they’re seeking are actually used by speakers of many languages, but find that the keywords all mean the same thing but are used within the language of the speaker. This is particularly true in the medical, scientific and technology fields. For example, “webinar” is searched for 22,000 times per month in German in Germany. You can easily tell that “webinar” is being used as a German word in this case because in Germany there are only 1,000 searches for “webinars” but 1,900 searches for “webinare” which is the original English term being turned into a plural using standard German grammar rules. The fact that Germans are using this word then, does not mean they are searching in English—they are in fact searching in German using an adopted word.

Whoops… it’s a coincidence

There are some examples where the spelling of an English keyword coincides identically with that of a word in another language—sometimes with potentially disastrous consequences. So, for instance, if you search for “chair” in French the results you see relate to the French meaning of “chair” namely “flesh” rather than the intended English meaning of something you sit on. The Dutch when they search for “room” probably aren’t looking for a space to decorate and arrange furniture, but a creamy substance to put in their coffee. And the Italian “ape” actually means “bee” and not a creature that likes bananas and can be visited in zoos.

Now that one’s really English!

Despite the best efforts of the French establishment, there are still over half a million searches for “computer” each month in French in France. It’s a powerful term used by so much of the world that this is inevitable. But wait, if we target that one we’ll miss the 20 million plus monthly searches for “ordinateur” which really is the winner in this case rather than the one many expect! Targeting “computer” would deliver less than one twentieth of the market in France but your keyword research would still tell you it was searched for—no wonder translation approaches to search often fail to deliver good ROI.

Actually, we stole that one!

Just because we think a keyword is English doesn’t mean that we’re actually right. The term “agenda” for instance originally comes from Latin and meant a list of things to do rather than the planning of a meeting. Nowadays, the French use this term a lot because they adopted it to mean “diary.” And as for “nouvelle cuisine” where we mean expensive French cooking—alongside that meaning the French may well be looking for an entirely new kitchen or kitchen design at home.

What impact does this have on your keyword research?

You might think that this is a semantic jargon with no real purpose—I hope not but just in case don’t forget that “jargon” comes from French and was used to describe the tweeting of birds. The real purpose is in illustrating the point that just because a keyword check for another language uncovers a keyword that looks like it’s English, it doesn’t actually mean that it is or that it means what we think it means.

This has important consequences for anyone undertaking keyword research:

  • Always set keyword research tools to find results in the target country, and set the appropriate language setting
  • Always use native-speakers to do your keyword research
  • Watch out when doing global “English” keyword research that it doesn’t include uses of the keyword that have nothing to do with what you’re targeting

“Casino” for example is originally an Italian word and is used in several European languages to mean “box” or “supermarket” as well as someplace you go to gamble.

You can probably understand then that when George Bush said “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”—we did rather titter. Ironically though, we were wrong to do so because “entrepreneur” simply means businessperson in French rather than the “innovator” idea we have in English. Perhaps George should have really said, “The problem with the French is that they don’t use the word entrepreneur like we do,” then he might have been expressing true wisdom.

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