SEO Translating, a new field of specialization for translators?

While automated translations, free on-line translations and other translation systems keep flourishing everywhere with a quality hovering between barely acceptable and frankly disastrous, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a growing business.

As more and more businesses, service providers, information providers and official bodies feel the need to have a solid on-line presence, SEO industry is expected to show a whooping 14% growth in North American, jumping from US$14.6 billions in 2009 to US$16.6 Billions in 2010 according to the March 2010 SEMPO report.Only a third of the 1.8 billion global surfers are English speakers, and as a Common Sense Advisory Research indicates that 85% of all online consumers would only buy from a website if they could read about the product in their own native language, even if they had some competency reading in other languages, they clearly indicate that they want you to speak their language.

So you also need to understand what they will be looking for in their own language.Performing SEO is still a labor intensive, time-consuming hence expensive task. Yet, having your website optimized in English, you cannot simply have it translated without the repeating all that effort in foreign languages. It is sadly not possible to pre-optimize your Web copy before translation -- it has to be re-optimized as part of the translation processThis is due to the democratic nature of language as used by SEO professionals. Contrary to regular advertisers who are trying to find new and original ways of presenting their products, SEO specialist are essentially bending backwards to find out how consumers talk about the product or service they want to promote.So when producing foreign versions, the trick is not to find the words that most closely correspond to the English original, but the words most commonly used by the target audience in the countries in question.

This implies an intimate knowledge not only of the language, but also of the language habits of your target audience.As a result, keywords, or search terms, fall into three broad categories: directly translatable, freely translatable and non-translatable.The easiest to translate are the words that have direct equivalents in the target language and that are equally widely used as search terms.  So where English Web users will Google "travel", French users search for "voyage”. The two words have the same meaning and are used in similar ways. These are the words deemed directly translatable.  Although in fact, even here, things are not as simple as they look.  Only once the seemingly obvious translation has been tested to verify that it is indeed widely searched for - by actual users in relevant contexts -, it can be confirmed as a directly translatable terms.More complex are the freely translatable words that can be translated in a number of ways.  For these, the challenge is to think of all the possible translations, so as to test each of them and see which ones are actually searched for.  

An example is the apparently uncomplicated "cheap flights". As no respectable French national would ever condescend to by something cheap, there is in fact no French word for "cheap," so various different wordings have to be tried - "vols pas chers" (not-expensive flights"), "vols bon marché" ("good-bargain flights"), "vols à bas prix" ("flights at low price"), "vols a petit prix" ("flights at small price") to name but a few. Back-translated into English, none of these expressions are likely candidates for successful keyword but all of them are viable options in French.  Despite the valiant efforts of the guardians of French linguistic purity, even English intruders such as "discount" and "low cost" might turn out to be worthy of investigation. The word “cheap”, however, is sometimes used as such by French speakers, but it connotes low price with lack of quality and/or vulgarity. So using cheap as a keyword to promote your travel agency in France might in fact play against you!The real work though, comes after finding the most appropriate translation or translations. These translations have to be optimized syntactically for a search context, where people tend to shorten their search term as mush as possible.  So whereas "cheapest flights" would be "vols les moins chers," in correct French, Web surfers almost never use the article "les", they just search for "vols moins chers”, and while "vols à bas prix" ("flights at low price") is grammatically correct, the far more popular, though incorrect search term "vols bas prix" ("flights low price") is definitely more relevant as a keyword.

As for the non-translatable keywords, they are, well, non translatable.Finally, the third category is terms for which there are no relevant equivalent in the target language.  For example, "flight deals" is a high-ranking search term among budget airline customers in English, but the word "deal" in the sense of "arrangement" does not translate naturally into French.  While an equivalent could be found, it is not something that French people would say, and therefore not something they would search for.However, conversely, there may well exist some terms that do not appear in the list of most popular searches in English, but would be very relevant in the target language - what Donald Rumsfeld would call "unknown unknowns."  An example of such a term from the airline project would be "vols secs." Literally this translates as "dry flights," but it has nothing to do with alcohol-free travel (as if a budget airline would pass up the chance to sell you four-euro tins of lager!), it means flights that are sold on their own without accommodation, car hire, travel insurance etc.  You could never find these terms through a pure translation process, but that does not mean they are any less useful for generating traffic.  Indeed, they may be more useful than many translated terms.And of course, identifying the most profitable search terms is not an end in itself. These terms are merely the raw materials, and a skilled copywriter is needed to assemble them into a convincing message in the foreign language.  

SEO copywriting is hard work in any language -- but if you can find the right way to tackle it, then it's much more likely that potential customers will find you.