Recently I saw a press release about the launch of a global website for a local company. The developers had publicized it as a feature project on their blog. The site is available in English and Spanish. Of course my first question was, “Who did the translation?”
As I read through the case study, I was surprised to see that language wasn’t discussed. The write-up focused on how the site was structured for global users. My Spanish-fluent colleague took a look and confirmed that the site was visually beautiful but the Spanish was not. Bad grammar, awkward wording, inconsistent tone and terminology: it was obviously machine translated.
But maybe the translation didn’t matter:
- The site targets Spanish speakers living in the US. These are using a US-based search engine to find the flagship site, then clicking through to the Spanish version. Consistent Spanish-language keywords for search optimization may not have been necessary.
- The brand already has a following, and would have to do a lot worse than butcher the Spanish language to alienate its fans. Even if Spanish speakers were offended, sales are unlikely to drop.
- It’s a consumer brand, not a B2B brand. Branding does not hinge on precision, complexity, and technical expertise.
The site developers probably used a plugin to populate the site with Spanish translations “on the fly” using Google Translate. Pages translated in this way only exist temporarily and aren’t indexed by search engines. If there really was no expectation of organic search traffic from outside the US, the lack of search authority wouldn’t impact the client’s bottom line.
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If the following are true, simply rely on Google Translate:
- You don’t care if searchers outside the US can find your site.
- You don’t care about grammar or accuracy.
- You have complete faith in your overseas distributors to define your brand.
But if these are not true, keep reading.
International Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
There’s been a lot of hype about the advances in automatic translation. People outside of the localization industry take for granted that a reader who speaks another language could right-click anywhere on a page, choose “translate this site,” and get a serviceable version of the copy.
But here’s the problem: if you want to reach prospects in other countries, unless they already have the URL for your brand, they won’t be able to find it in the first place. Free automatic translation tools will not optimize your site for international search. In France or Germany, where they use French or German Google (www.google.fr or www.google.de), French and German content gets priority, so your flagship site won’t be found unless someone is specifically searching for you. (Automatically translated pages are not archived, so they are invisible to foreign-language search engines).
If you don’t want prospective clients to find you via search, you can rely on “translate this page.”
How bad are automatic translations?
Language service partners have a professional obligation to warn of the dangers of unedited machine-translated content. More circumspect readers will admit, “it’s not THAT bad.”
If your prospects reach your site, and they click “translate this site” what will they get? To illustrate the difference between clicking “translate this site” and going to a professionally translated site, I looked up the Japanese bank Nomura on www.google.jp. When I clicked “translate this website” (into English) I got this:
“The Nomura Group has a global network that exceeds 30 countries and regions around the world as a “global financial services and group based on Asia.” Three divisions, sales, asset management and wholesale, cooperate cross-cuttingly to provide highly value-added products and services to domestic and overseas customers.”
The punctuation is off, and “cross-cuttingly” is a ridiculous adverb. But honestly, it’s NOT THAT BAD considering I don’t read Japanese! Still, compare it to the professionally translated, search-optimized page that can be reached through the language menu:
“Nomura is an Asia-headquartered global investment bank with an integrated network spanning over 30 countries. By connecting markets East & West, we service the needs of individuals, institutions, corporations and governments through our three business divisions: Retail, Asset Management, and Wholesale (Global Markets and Investment Banking.)”
This makes better sense and reads more authoritatively for the type of people who need global investment banking services.
Instead of asking how objectively bad automatic translation is, you should ask yourself if the quality meets your readers’ standards. Grammar is not essential to the B2C brand I described earlier. However, B2B marketing needs to be very careful, because precision is essential to manufacturing, law, engineering, chemicals, pharma, finance, and any other good or service traded in a B2B context.
If your sentences look silly, will they trust you for a major purchase?
But my customers only deal with my distributors.
Trust and communication are essential to your relationship with your overseas distributors. Any number of arrangements can be reached with respect to marketing, sales, and advertising. You could retain complete control over marketing collateral or they could be handling everything through print or online catalogs. If you have a strong relationship with your distributor, and you are totally happy with your overseas revenues, then it might not matter if you translate your website professionally or not.
If your relationship with your distributor ends, will your branding be strong enough among buyers in that regional market to compete without their support? Without a dedicated foreign-language website, a brand can be present in a region for years without having built any online search authority.
If your end customers seek out your US / English language website and click “translate this website,” can you be confident that what they see in their own language will be consistent with information they are getting from your distributor? If you are exporting medical devices, for example, you need to be very careful that claims made in marketing copy don’t diverge from the technical material provided to regulators. (Your competitors will be happy to point out any discrepancies to the authorities).
What if we build a site, then paste in Google Translated text?
Please don’t do that.
Google’s quality guidelines frown on automatically generated content, and at the top of the list of examples of “automatically generated content” is “text translated by an automated tool without human review or curation before publishing.” Most of the big localization firms will hammer this point home repeatedly. Industry news source Slater ran the story with the headline “Google Doesn’t Want Google Translated Content in its Search Results.”
If your web developer uses Google Translate to generate raw foreign-language copy, then publishes it on web pages without editing, your SEO strategy will be derailed.
Even if SEO penalties weren’t an issue, whatever you publish is still going to be a part of your brand identity. Will you offend your readers with the assumption that their language has lower standards than your own?
If none of this applies to you, “translate this page” is fine.
But if you want to make the most of your foreign-language market, partner with professional translation and localization experts to create a search-optimized website to protect your brand and serve your customers.