Machine Translation SEO: Foreign Language Search Engine Success

Are English speaking websites based in the US simply insular and uncaring about foreign web traffic or are we actually Xenophobic?

Xenophobia – a phobic attitude toward strangers – comes from the Greek words xenos, meaning “foreigner”, “stranger”.

Trolling through the “referrers” section in my web site traffic logs routinely shows hundreds of Google foreign language searches. Those foreign language search referrals usually total just slightly more than the combined total of Yahoo and MSN English language search referrals. So doesn’t it make sense to pay more attention to foreign language search in SEO than to fiddle with Yahoo and MSN optimization? My traffic logs routinely show hundreds of translation tool referrals: with multiple URL’s from my site appended.
This query at “Google English” is a request by a foreign language
user for a translation of that page on my site. The most common
of them are from (Spain) and (Germany) and (Portugal). Last month there were nearly 1,000 of these
queries from Google translation tools, which you can check out

This translation – or “Language Tools” page at Google is helpful
in escaping our insular attitudes about English language search
by showing us that Google currently supports 34 languages and
hosts servers in 141 countries – literally from A to Z.
(United Arab Emirates) to

Google has 117 languages listed on that page, but they’ve buried a few ringers in there with “Elmer Fudd”, “Klingon”, and “Pig Latin” to throw linguists for a loop. While it’s interesting to use those funny options, clicking the “I’m Feewing Wucky” on the “Elmer Fudd” language produces the same results as does the English language search, it’s just cuter with the letters “L” and “R” replaced with “W’s” on the search page.

But we need to look at the fundamental reason that Google offers this “Language Tools” page and the machine translation there. It is because web site owners in the U.S. don’t offer multiple languages on their own sites.

While it is not uncommon to see a row of four to six flags representing the top few languages on many European based sites (especially Italy, Spain and France based companies) – it is actually rare to see multiple language options on U.S. based business sites.

There are manifold reasons for this lack of communication by English speaking countries with the rest of the world. The top reason is that we simply don’t need to know other languages to live our daily lives in this country, so we rarely think of using other languages online. While English is a primary language spoken around the world, including Canada, Australia, India, Britain and is a second language spoken by millions of primary foreign language speakers.

While it is common to visit major cities in Japan, Italy, Mexico and dozens of metropolitan cities around the planet without fear that we’ll be unable to find English speaking hoteliers, restaurateurs, and even cabbies – it is an arrogant expectation. I’ve been to each of those countries and didn’t need any Japanese, Italian or Spanish language skills while on either business or pleasure.

But we’ve got to be realistic if we are to take part in the global medium of the web. Those web pages are viewable by an estimated 700 million people around the world and millions of those would happily visit and read your web site if it were available in the world’s top languages and indexed in foreign search engines. So why not provide that option?

Major corporate web sites in the U.S. will inevitably require polished human translation of their major web pages, with variations for international tastes and preferences – most small and medium business sites cannot afford that option.

This leaves machine translation as the best remaining option. While it is possible for any site visitor to use translation tools online to convert your English language text into foreign tongues, it sends the visitor away from your site to the translation service. Not ideal.

The best option is to use translation software to put those foreign language variations on your own site and host them from your own server in the languages you offer. The reason to host them is, very simply, that if you provide machine translated foreign variants of all your pages, they will be crawled by foreign search engines and indexed and ranked on European and Asian search engines.

The web audience in China was roughly estimated at just over 100 million in 2005 and is expected to balloon in the near future. Simply being indexed for Chinese language searches and reasonably ranked could increase traffic for U.S. sites dramatically. The European audience is fragmented with many more language options – the main representative languages on the web are Spanish, French, Portugese, German & Italian, while Chinese, Korean and Japanese make up the bulk of the remaining web audience. Those eight languages are offered in popular machine translation software packages.

If a site has already been optimized for English language search, the SEO will have included the most important keywords. While machine translation is not entirely reliable for proper sentence structure and grammar once translated, it at least gets most words and many word combinations correct. Content sites, who often rely on advertising for income, would love to see the extra pageviews and ad clicks coming from foreign visitors reading their pages in their native language.

Once a content site owner sees their largest foreign audience trends (through web traffic analytics statistics), they can fine -tune their SEO for individual languages and actually pay for professional translation and foreign language SEO of the most profitable pages. But simply getting a content site indexed by search engines in more than eight new countries will bring waves of new visitors and increase advertising income substantially.

About the Author: Mike Banks Valentine is a Search Engine Optimization Specialist

View all contributions by

Search Engine Veteran - Enterprise SEO & Small Business Entrepreneurs. Advisor to startups for pre-launch optimization SEO Audits & consulting.