SEO translation: A highly specialized field for tech-savvy translators
Over the last few years, the demand for SEO translations has increased. While English is still the most important Internet language, other languages are gaining ground. Chinese and Spanish are currently in second and third place, according to Internet World Stats.
Providing multilingual web content increases a company’s reach and positively affects
- time spent on page,
- conversion rates,
- user experience, and
But the best translated website is useless if it doesn’t rank in the target market. Businesses are increasingly realizing that their foreign language content needs to be optimized with local search engines and user habits in mind.
What many of them don’t know is that optimizing content means more than incorporating relevant keywords. Today’s search algorithms are looking for unique content that answers readers’ questions. The following article lays out the requirements for optimized translations – and the skills required to create them.
SEO translations are transcreations
There is no such thing as translated SEO copy. Traditional translations take a source text and render it as faithfully as possible in the foreign language. A good translation will sound as if it was written by a native speaker, but it will do so while staying as true as possible to the original.
In contrast, content designed to appeal to search engines may need significant re-writing in the target language. Why?
- Reader preferences vary between countries and cultures. If online content is to rank high, it needs to capture the readers’ attention as long as possible. Depending on the target culture, this may require some changes in the wording and/or structure of the text.
- Keywords cannot be translated. Period. Each keyword (phrase) needs to be researched and verified with local search habits, search volume, competition and trend in mind.
- Search engines not only look for keywords but also expect to find proof keywords and synonyms within the page. For example: An article on how to build a fence should include supporting terms such as posts, panels, and screws. In some cases, information may need to be added to create an optimized translation.
The process of taking a liberal approach to create compelling copy in the target language is known as “transcreation.” A transcreation focuses on the message rather than the words. It recreates rather than translates a text. SEO translations fall under this category, with the added challenge of incorporating keywords.
A SEO translator thus requires the triple expertise of language, copywriting, and SEO skills.
Optimized translations need to appeal to humans and machines
Crafting SEO translations is a balancing act. On the one hand, they need to appeal to machines (search engines). On the other hand, they must appeal to human readers. The old way of simply littering a text with keywords no longer works for modern search engines. In fact, it may lead to penalties.
- Use keywords strategically. This means identifying the most effective keywords – one primary, two to three secondary and maybe even a few tertiary keywords – and placing them where they matter most. For content such as web pages or blog articles, this typically means: H1 header, H2 headers, and the first and last paragraphs.
- Have a clear structure. Web copy should have short sentences and paragraphs and make use of subheaders, bullet lists, and text emphasis. The content needs to be skimmable for time-crunched readers.
- Use simple, compelling language. Unlike an ad, SEO content does not need to attract the reader’s interest. After all, the reader specifically searched for the content. Instead, it must reinforce the reader’s interest and prompt him to take the next step.
- Be wholistic. SEO content does not work in isolation. To rank well, the meta elements – title tag, meta description, URL and image ALT tags – must also include important keywords.
Many translation buyers forget about the importance of meta elements. A knowledgeable SEO translator should point out that an optimized text without optimized meta elements will do little to improve the search ranking.
SEO translations are content marketing
SEO copy falls under content marketing. This means it must align with the client’s style and image. Typical SEO content also has a specific goal, e.g. to entice the reader to make a purchase, subscribe to a newsletter, or ask for a free quote. The writing style is different from print copy, and a translator with marketing skills will be more effective in converting visitors into customers.
Besides marketing skills, there are other competencies SEO translators need.
SEO translators need research skills
Because keywords play an essential role in optimized translations, SEO translators need to be familiar with keyword research and analysis. As mentioned above, there is no such thing as a translated keyword. Consider this example:
A British furniture manufacturer sells TV stands labeled as widescreen TV cabinets on its website. The translation into German would be Breitbild-TV-Schränke. Search volume in Germany: 0. Because most modern TVs are widescreen TVs, this designation is unnecessary in German. A more common term in the country would be TV-Schränke, which has a monthly search volume of 14,800, or Fernsehschränke, which has a search volume of 12,100.
A SEO translator needs to know the right tools to conduct keyword research (good free ones include Google’s Keyword Planner and Ubersuggest), and how to conduct a SERP and trend analysis. A translated keyword is useless if it is not being searched in the target market.
SEO translators need consulting skills
SEO is a topic that many people dabble in but few can practice on a professional (read: effective) level. In many cases, SEO translators must act as consultants and explain to their clients why a simple “translate and plug in” approach likely will not yield the desired results. The best SEO translations are achieved when the client and translator work together in close collaboration.
Ideally, the translator delivers a list of relevant keyword suggestions in the target language with explanations on why these terms and phrases are appropriate in the given context. The client then approves or rejects them. The translator only starts working on the translation once both sides have agreed on the best keywords to target.
SEO translators need to be human
Machine translation has its uses, but SEO content writing is not one of them. SEO expert Chris Raulf explains: “Machine translation or unprofessionally translated content does absolutely nothing for SEO, quite the opposite in fact.”
For one thing, machines are unreliable when it comes to finding effective keywords. Google Translate, for example, translates TV unit with TV-Gerät in German, which essentially means TV. However, the above-mentioned furniture manufacturer uses the term to describe one of its TV cabinets. There is a big difference between a TV cabinet and a TV, but a machine cannot differentiate based on context.
Another reason why SEO translations need a human hand: Good SEO content must be unique. Duplicate content is the enemy of optimized content. Yet, machine translation, by its very nature, is designed to leverage and re-use existing translations. From a SEO perspective, this is a huge NO.
Finally, a machine will not break up a long, convoluted sentence into short, digestible ones. Alas, sentence structure is a known ranking factor. Only a human translator can make a judgment call and shorten sentences if necessary.
In the end, a SEO translation needs to be at least as good as – if not better than – the original. Machine translation is not there yet, and it is questionable whether it will ever get there. For now, all SEO content writing should remain in human hands and heads.
This article is a summary of a presentation I gave at the 2019 International Conference of the German translators association BDÜ. You may also download my slides and my presentation summary in German.