Marianne Siréta: When translation and SEO meet

A month ago, Marianne Siréta, professor at ISIT and expert in translation, localization and transcreation, explained the importance of localizing your website. This week, she puts on her Google bot hat and explains why multilingual SEO is another critical stage for hitting your target’s bullseye.

Why is SEO important for a website?
As I always tell my students, there are two reasons we write for the web, and these two reasons complement each other: one is to be read by online users, and, the second is to enable that by being noticed by the search engine ranking bots. You can have the best website in the world offering the world’s best products, but if no one finds your site when searching the web (usually using Google, though it is important to know the browsing habits of your target audience), then it’s going to live a pretty lonely little existence. Thus the goal of SEO: to be ranked as high as possible within the results, and on the first page in any case (few people visit the second page, and the third page only on very rare occasion), for those search keywords most commonly used by online users interested in your services or products.

Which methods do you use to make sure a site is highly ranked by Google?
There are three main elements that matter when it comes to multilingual SEO: the visible content (text, formatting), the invisible content (HTML code, such as the title tags), and the links (which sites does your site link to, and especially, which sites link back to you). In short, the search engine bot “reads” your site’s text looking for keywords while also taking formatting into consideration (a bold word is more important, for example), as well as the tags which are invisible to the reader (an H1 heading is given more weight than a H2 heading, which itself is given more weight than a P paragraph).
In order to “get an idea” of a site’s contents, the bot also looks at the external hyperlinks that connect the site to other sites – which sites it seems to “approve” of and which sites seem to “approve” of it. If the UN or a major corporation links to your site, that will definitely have a positive impact! On a more realistic note, getting your site to be part of a network of sites that are relatively popular in your field is an excellent method to achieve this.
But let’s get back to the keyword, which is the most important element and the one that directly concerns a website translator. These words should be repeated in several places in order to indicate their importance to the search bot, used in headings, meta-descriptions, articles (repeated but not too frequently, using different formatting, and accompanied by synonyms and their respective lexical fields, which search engine algorithms are increasingly better able to recognize), tags, image captions, etc. When translating an article for the web, it’s important to pay special attention to keywords and to put yourself in the shoes of an online user from the target culture. What words are he or she be likely to enter into the search box when searching for your products and services? These should not always simply be direct translations of the original keywords.
For example, in an assignment I give my students, we study a blog article in Spanish that in fact talks about SEO. I ask them to identify the important words that are repeated, and to provide a list of the keywords in French to be used when translating and adapting the article. For some keywords, a direct translation works fine: SEO, “buscador” (search engine), “palabra clave” (keyword), “optimización” (optimization), etc. But a major one is missing, and in fact it’s THE most important French word in this domain: “référencement” (SEO). With good reason, because this exact word (used in this sense) does not exist in Spanish (“indexación” is infrequently used and “referenciación” even less). Instead, we use “SEO” (the English acronym) and “optimización” (“optimization”). It is therefore extremely important to research the keywords and check them using Google searches and tools such as Google Adwords (which tells you the relevance of keywords).

Do you work for an agency that provides website translation services, and if so, do they provide the keywords to use, or do you research them yourself?
I occasionally do work for an agency specializing in this domain, but usually I take care of the keyword research myself. In fact, sometimes this work falls under a completely separate contract than the translation or drafting/editing. I am given the list of keywords in the source language, or an article written in the source language, and I deliver an “equivalent” list in the target language. Or, I am sent an article already written by the client, and asked to reinforce or insert the relevant keywords. The list that I deliver might then be reviewed by an SEO specialist, or perhaps used to purchase search result links (“paid search” or SEA; these are the sponsored links found above the “natural” search results).

When doing work for a client directly, I usually take care of the SEO myself, or at least the translation related part: selecting the keywords, editing the file for the web, and I usually provide recommendations for the rest, such as the linking strategy, for example. In that case, I either deliver a text document that includes notes on the HTML tags to use, or the client gives me access to the platform used to develop the website and I enter the translation myself directly, including the HTML tags (this of course depends on the website approval processes and the internal web development tools used by the company).

Do companies understand the need for SEO translations?
SEO is entering the vocabulary of many companies, even the smallest ones, though for some the mechanism itself remains fairly opaque and mysterious. Generally speaking, the further afield one goes from the domain of IT and marketing, the less companies tend to master these skills. It’s fairly easy to create a basic website using the host of tools available today. But it’s quite something else to write for the web in a way that is effective, and to select and use the right search related elements, such as heading tags. There’s also a fair bit of confusion between “natural” and “paid” search (SEO and SEA), with some saying that it would be simpler to just purchase the keywords in question – an approach I would not recommend for small companies. The costs can be significant, which means they’ll never be able to compete at that level with large companies. As a result, they end up dropping the paid search at some point, and then search engines have a tendency to relegate them to a very very low spot in the rankings, leaving them even worse off than before). In any case, doing paid search without optimizing your website for “natural” rankings (SEO) won’t do you much good. It’s like paying for a great TV ad before you’ve worked your network to build your initial customer base, and to then continue being unable to benefit from your network once the ad has been broadcast.
As for SEO translation, that remains fairly limited in practice, simply because the mechanisms of the translation process itself tend to be greatly underestimated. For many people, to translate a website means simply replacing one word with its unique equivalent in a target language, or at most adapting the sentence structure somewhat. This is why many small companies still try to translate their website to English (or Spanish, etc.) in-house, because they “have someone who speaks decent English”. What they don’t have is anyone who is truly capable of judging whether the results are good or not. So there’s a big need for education by translation companies on the translation process and search engine optimization, and the way that the two can, and should, be combined. Seeing it implemented in real life by a professional website translator can be highly enlightening. There’s a lot to be done by professional website translation services, especially in terms of outreach to make companies aware of a need they didn’t even know they had.