A question was recently posed to Google’s John Mueller about whether or not optimizing multilingual SEO content for users searching without special characters, in a language traditionally written with a certain script, would help rankings. His answer? No.
Properly Optimizing Your Language For Multilingual SEO and User Experience
In today’s global marketplace having a multilingual website is no longer an aspiration – for many it is essential to stay relevant and competitive.
Search Engine Optimization is of course a huge concern for web developers and marketers when creating content for global users, and international SEO strategies will be different depending on what country and language you are targeting with your website.
This requires creativity both at the marketing level, and by language service providers (LSPs). LSPs must translate, adapt, localize, and transcreate your message to appeal to an international market while satisfying local SEO best practices – this includes keywords, search queries, content topics, UI/UX etc.
Multilingual SEO: Optimizing for Keyword Variations
Keywords are particularly important when it comes to localizing text. Just like with your overall marketing plan, it is essential that you develop a separate keyword strategy for each locality you’re targeting.
In the past when search engines weren’t as sophisticated (Google specifically) this keyword research needed to include a focus on variations of terms in order to rank for occurrences like misspellings or the lack of an accent in a foreign word.
These days, as Google’s algorithm has shifted to neural networks and the ability to derive context from similar queries more easily, the need to specifically optimize for these language variances is less important.
That being said, there is still an underlying question about optimizing for the use (or lack thereof) of special characters in multilingual searches.
It is with this point that we turn to a recent discussion with Google’s John Mueller (as covered on SEO Rountable) where a question was proposed about the best way to optimize multilingual website content for languages utilizing different scripts and diacritics (accents).
Multilingual SEO: Does Optimizing For Searches Without Scripts and Diacritics Affect Organic Rankings?
In short the question centered on if it was better for rankings to forego language scripts (in this instance Cyrillic) in order to rank well when users search for terms or phrases without them.
According to John Mueller, if a language is supposed to be written using a specific script or with diacritics, you should be writing content for that language using them.
Specifically concerning words utilizing accents and other special characters he states,
“Some people do search without the special characters and a lot of people search with them…if you create your content to actually be readable, it will essentially rank for both of these variations…sometimes people mean subtly different things…sometimes having an accent or not makes a difference in the word that is actually used. This is something where it would be normally [sic] to see subtly different search results.”
As professional linguists, this point is something we can really get behind.
The Dangers of Misrepresenting A Language
To begin with, languages are based on sets of grammatical rules. These rules can change over time; however, they lay the basis for how a language is traditionally used. Altering the grammatical rules of a language for the purposes of advertising and marketing does happen, but it can disrupt the syntax and phonology of words – which can in some cases alter meanings and cause confusion.
On top of that, meaning can also vary greatly depending on where stress (represented with an accent) is placed. Using the proper spelling of a word, including its accents, can prevent misunderstandings.
Even the use of a language’s proper script can help clear confusion for readers. There are over 6,000 living languages in the world today, and roughly 3,866 of them use standardized scripts (the rest assumed unwritten).
How Do You Take A Script From One Language And Represent It In Another?
Individuals search the internet from all around the world – and it’s not always the case that the device they’re using will have a keyboard adapted to the script of their language.
While you can change your keyboard to the corresponding script, some may view it as more of a hassle than a benefit. Therefore, they choose to transliterate their language for searches.
Transliteration is the act of transcribing a language written in one script, into corresponding symbols of another script.
Some content publishers may choose to transliterate their content as a means of pursuing a website localization strategy, especially if some search that way. However, it can quickly cause inconsistencies and be discouraging.
To explain this further, we will look at what happens when transliterating the Greek alphabet into Latin script.
In the case of Greek to Latin script, there is no unifying standard for spelling. As such, most words are either rendered phonetically or based on what letters in the Latin script most closely resemble those of the Greek alphabet.
While this may not change the meaning of the words being presented, it can be time consuming for readers to identify which script their language is being transliterated into, and as such which spellings are used, as they will depend entirely on personal choice.
Two examples of where confusion can stem from are with the sound of “i”, and when indicating verb tense using the Greek letter omega (Ω / ω).
The Sound Of “i”
In the Greek language, there are three different letters used to indicate the English ‘i” sound, depending on where the sound is in the word and with which letters it is combined.
Represented in the Latin alphabet, these different sounds would look like:
- i (iota – traditionally: Ι / ι )
- n (eta – traditionally: Η / η )
- u (ipsilon – traditionally: Υ / υ )
When writing content for a Greek audience with a Latin script, the author would have a few options for how to represent these sounds:
- Use the closest corresponding Latin letter to represent the sound – either “i”, “n”, or “u” for lowercase, or “I”, “H”, or “Y” for uppercase.
- Use the Latin letter that represents the sound, in this case “i”.
It may sound simple; however, these options can quickly become complicated. For example, if Ε / ε (epsilon) and Ι / ι (iota) are next to each other in a Greek word they make an “i” sound. The person transliterating now has the choice of either writing to represent the sound in the Latin script with just the letter “i”, or writing to stay true to the Greek script using the letters “ei.”
Indicating Verb Tense
Another area where sounds can complicate transliteration is when indicating verb tense. In Greek the first person form of a verb always ends with the letter Ω / ω (omega). Visually this letter looks like a Latin script w in its lowercase form; however it sounds like an o. So when transliterating one could choose either a w or an o to represent the omega.
Nai, vai, kai ne
In case you’re not, we have a few examples to demonstrate this further. Let’s look at the Greek word for “yes”. In the Greek script, this word looks like Ναι at the beginning of a sentence, and ναι in the middle of a sentence. The letters used are Nu (Ν / ν), Alpha (Α / α), and Iota (Ι / ι).
So how could you represent this in Latin script?
- At the beginning of a sentence, using the closest corresponding letter method: Nai
- In the middle of a sentence, using the closest corresponding letter method: vai
- Spelling with Latin letters representing original sounds of the Greek word: Ne / ne
Another example can be seen with the word “and” which looks like και using Greek script.
How would you transliterate it?
- In the middle* of a sentence, using the closest corresponding letter method: kai
- Spelling with Latin letters representing original sounds of the Greek word: ke
*Grammatically you would never put “and” at the beginning of a sentence.
As represented in the above examples, spelling is dependent on what the author ultimately decides, and can vary quite a bit.
While Greek speakers might be used to seeing their language transliterated (and doing it themselves), it can still be time consuming to read. They have to first identify which language’s script the writer is using (here we used English Latin script, but the representations will vary if we used Spanish or Italian), and then which style is being used to transliterate.
Using the original script helps alleviate some of the hassle and inconsistency for readers, and ultimately may be the difference between them staying on your site to read your content or bouncing away.
Multilingual SEO: Diacritics Can Change Your Entire Message
Whereas writing content utilizing a language’s specific script has more to do with respect and helping alleviate some time consuming confusion for native speaking readers, when it comes to accents any changes can result in entirely new meanings of words.
Mueller touches upon this point in his response. The risk of not conveying proper meaning should be a very good argument for most marketers on why it’s good practice to stay faithful to how languages are written (even if users don’t always search that way).
Examples of marketing localization and translation services gone bad, and the harm this can do to a brand’s reputation, are rife.
Misusing diacritics could land you in such a situation. At the lowest level brands risk insulting readers in foreign markets by choosing to mis-represent the way their words are written. At the highest level they risk insulting readers by implying an entirely different meaning from what they originally intended.
Dad Or A Potato?
A basic example of this is seen in Spanish, where simply leaving out the tilde over the last “a” in papá can change the subject of your sentence from dad to potato. Similarly in Italian, going from papà to papa will have you referring to the pope instead of a family member.
These are only two minor examples of the dangers of forgoing accents for the sake of international SEO, and others can result in much cruder and much more insulting insinuations for your audience.
Granted not every word that uses diacritics will change its meaning when an accent or two is left off, and search engines should be able to match similar results for instances such as these. However there may be some scenarios when the non-accented version of the word has more search traffic than the traditional spelling.
What you need to keep in mind is who the audiences are behind those spellings.
For example, let’s say you’re targeting tourists to give them information about a local attraction that just so happens to have an accent in its name. You may want to consider optimizing for variations of the name without the accent, as non-native speaking tourists might be less likely to search using diacritics.
Keep in mind though, this is an audience of non-native speakers who will have much different expectations and, of course, different language requirements than native speakers.
So what should webmasters, bloggers, brands and businesses do moving forward?
Shape Multilingual SEO and Content Strategies Around The Language Of The User
It’s well known that creating content which best satisfies user experiences is what wins rankings in the long-run.
In the case of language, nothing says you value your multilingual readers and customers more than providing them with high quality content that stays true to their linguistic and cultural principles.
Bear in mind that our argument is geared towards content creators looking to target international and or native speaking audiences. There will be different queries and even results for non-script and non-diacritic language searches, but it is likely the audiences behind them will vary from those who do search with special characters.
What you choose to optimize for all comes down to who you are targeting. Be sure to do thorough research when formulating your multilingual SEO strategy, but always keep in mind the expectations and experience of your users.
When it comes to native-speakers of languages that use scripts and diacritics, we’d always recommend you stay as true to the language as possible!
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