It’s the keywords, stupid (Guestpost)

Wed 8 July 2009 10:30, Editors

It’s the keywords, stupid (Guestpost)

If anyone can tell you how to work search across countries its Andy Atkins Kruger. On several events he spoke about keyword research in different countries. And he knows what he is talking about, since he lived in different countries.

Having started his career briefly as a journalist, Andy quickly moved into marketing communications, where he has spent the last 20 years. He worked first in advertising, then founded a public relations consultancy, The Partners Group, before moving into corporate marketing. After five years as the client, he bought into the supporting agency - WebCertain - where he became managing director. Andy is also managing editor of, a blog which covers all aspects of international search marketing, and a member of the SEMPO Global committee.

It’s the keywords, stupid

Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign against George Bush – the elder – coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid”.  The slogan was originally intended to remind the campaign workers to talk about fundamentals – ie the economy.   Politicians often like to talk about more exciting stuff; the next war, the next election or the latest scandal.  Search marketing is no different.  We know keywords are important and fundamental – and yet most of the time we talk about other stuff; the latest search engine testing, the potential for A to buy B or the departure of a key search engine executive to a new ‘start-up’. 

Marketers tend to neglect their keywords – especially in terms of where they invest their money.  Most budget goes on ‘clicks’ or ‘traffic’ – relatively little on keyword research or customer analysis.  Internationally, the situation is worse.  Whilst there are numerous tools to provide keyword research resources in English, in most other languages the major international keyword research is the search engines themselves and in many countries that can mean just Google.

The point is – getting keywords RIGHT is a huge step towards SEO or paid search success.  Quality keyword research is waste prevention par excellence and good research will nearly always pay back many times in a campaign.

Choosing the right keywords is not easy because they represent nothing more than the abbreviated thoughts of the searcher.  In fact the term ‘keyword’ is misleading because it tends to imply that the searcher knew they were choosing an important expression to carry out their search.  Whilst there are some examples of this, as a result of the searcher being trained to search in a particular way by the search engine results pages, predominantly searchers are unaware whether they are using a ‘hollywood’ keyword – as a client called head keywords this week – or a long tail term.  They are only ‘key’ words or phrases in our minds.

Additionally, many of the statistics in keyword research are misleading.  I am personally not a fan of the ‘keyword effectiveness index’ or KEI which fortunately applies little in the international sphere anyway.   But the idea that a term’s ‘frequency’ within the corpus (to combine a linguistic term with one from artificial intelligence) indicates the competitiveness of that term is frankly just bizarre.  There are many other statistics to be watchful of when it comes to multilingual keyword research.

Firstly, long tail, and its importance for targeting volume traffic, varies significantly by language.  Research, by the WebCertain team, shows that the tail is relatively short in romance languages but is much longer in Germanic languages.  English sits in the middle.  In practical terms, what this means is that to run a successful campaign in German, you actually typically need to use MORE keywords than you do in English.  With many US or UK managed clients attempting multilingual SEO or PPC, this is often not the case. 

I remember a few years ago being asked to review the campaign of a major global brand who was running a campaign successfully in the UK using 10,000 keywords.  Their German project was underperforming.  On checking it transpired the German campaign has just 54 keywords.

A particularly frustrating question is “How much search is there in English in that country?”  It is true that in some countries there is genuine English language search going on.  But the problem with the above question is that what lies behind is often, “Can we put up a few terms in English to avoid having to translate our content?”   If you’re trying to target a particular market, you should fundamentally target them in their own language.

But there’s another issue with English keywords in non-English markets.  All languages adopt popular terms from other languages – and then adapt them to their own needs.  The French talk about  ‘Le Weekend’, the Germans about ‘Old-Timers’ by which they mean vintage cars and there are many more examples. 

The length of keywords is another non-statistic.  German keywords are theoretically shorter than English ones –  except that they’re not.  German just happens to be one of those languages which put ‘words’ together to form new words rather than keeping spaces between them.

The bottom line is that keywords are really sensitive animals with a specific probability of converting for a particular client.  And the only person who can determine that is someone who is

  • Following a carefully defined and appropriate process
  • Understands the client’s market and needs
  • Is using the right data
  • Is qualified by dint of having that language as a mother tongue
  • Has experience and sensitivity to search marketing. 

Without these keywords, your campaign is built on the shifting sands of time, not on solid building blocks. 

WebCertain specialises in multilingual SEO, PPC and SMO for both agencies and clients.  It has published a guide to international SEO.

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