International SEO: Why bad translations hurt your search engine rankings

There are many obvious problems with a badly translated webpage: missing context, misunderstood phrasing and a lack of local knowledge, for example, all of which contribute to an alienating experience for customers. It’s why we consider true localisation, done by experienced translators, to be so important and why we always advise that businesses approach AI services like Google Translate with caution. They simply can’t be relied upon to understand important language nuances – the technology isn’t there yet.


How translations influence search engine rankings

Some problems, however, are less obvious but could be just as serious for a business looking to expand into new markets with different languages and dialects. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is an essential part of modern marketing, and one which can come badly unstuck with poor quality translation. If search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing don’t consider a website to be of sufficient quality it will be pushed down the page rankings – anyone searching for words or phrases that could bring them to your site, whether that’s “ethical fashion”, “emergency laptop repair” or “where can I buy a second-hand car?”, will find your competitors before they find you.

SEO and translation can clash in several ways if not handled with care. Firstly, and most obviously, an inaccurate translation will mean that words and phrases in your text may not match those being searched. Word-for-word translations can miss out important keywords due to variations across languages. For example, you might want to launch a sweet, vegan caramel made from dates in a Spanish language market. In English the word “date” has three different meanings – the calendar day, a romantic appointment and a fruit. In Spanish those are three different words: “fecha”, “cita” and “dátil”. Substitute the wrong one, and an essential part of your message has been lost and your copy no longer makes sense. Not only will that mean important keywords are missing, but a search engine will register the garbled sentences and rank the page lower as a result. This is a simplified example, of course, but it illustrates how an avoidable and costly mistake could slip through if corners are cut on translation.


Automated translations may be penalised

Some AI services, like Google Translate, might spot that sort of error (though they also might not), but present an even bigger problem. Google, by some margin the world’s most popular search tool, will consider “text translated by an automated tool without human review or curation before publishing” as a breach of its spam policies. This is absolutely disastrous for a page’s SEO – it essentially renders a page invisible to searches. Even Google itself understands that relying on AI translation, including its own translation tool, will make a website less useful.

The only reliable way to ensure web content is accurately translated is to use human experts who understand local context. This is true of front-end copy, keyword research, alt-text for images and “hidden” copy like meta-tags.


Multilingual keyword research

In fact, to really maximise the ROI in translation services for your online content, it is best practice to incorporate multilingual keyword research into the translation process right from the start. For example, if your English landing page has been optimised for the focus keyword “stripy socks” based on keyword research for the UK market, a professional translator would carry out keyword research to ensure the equivalent translated term is not only accurate, but also has the highest number of monthly searches in that market.

As with many aspects of marketing and business, including translation, cutting corners might seem like a sensible saving, but can result in a final product that isn’t fit for purpose. Solid search engine optimisation isn’t just a “nice-to-have”, it’s a completely essential part of every business. Get it wrong, and your website may as well not exist.

If you are in need of translation services that include international SEO, we invite you to explore our SEO translation services.


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