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Should I translate my website for Google? A guide for language schools.

At the IALC conference in Boston 2017, and again at StudyWorld London 2017, the inpatients at the Disquiet Dog Digital Clinic were owners and directors of some of the top language schools around the world. The question we got asked the most was “Should I translate my website?”

A related question was:

Is it more important to focus on featuring on your home country’s search engine results pages, or should you actually be focussing on overseas search engines where your students are?

Finally we were asked:

If you focus on in-country search engines, should you target people searching in English or their native language?

We read these question as:

Should I translate my website or just not bother?

…and here’s our attempt to start answering it.

This all gets a bit confusing without concrete examples. So we considered the following three scenarios:

  1. Scenario A:
    • A search string which is typed in the French language for an English course in Boston, which is typed into google.fr. The search term is “cours d’anglais à Boston USA”.
  2. Scenario B:
    • A search string which is typed in the English language for the same English course in Boston, which is typed into google.fr again, but this time the search term is in English: “English course in Boston USA”.
  3. Scenario C:
    • A search string which is typed in the English language for “English course in Boston USA”, which is typed into google.com`.

Our hypotheses are as follows:

  • That for scenario A, where we’re typing in French into google.fr, we think mainly agencies are going to appear, and it will be very hard for schools to compete because local agencies specialise in being highly relevant to their target audience, primarily by having all of their content in French (in this instance). Agencies generally list many programmes and locations, which also, we suspect, compounds the amount of content they have on their site in French, all about English courses.

  • That for scenario B, we think this it’s a bit odd that we would be situated in France (and naturally use google.fr without thinking to change it to anything else) but type in English. However, analysis of some of our clients’ Google Analytics accounts shows that they do receive a quite significant amount of traffic on that basis. If the traffic is there, we believe the benefit would be that it’s from someone who already speaks English and would be happy to browse the site in English. Also they would not be a beginner (and many schools do not actually cater to beginners). We hypothesise that schools will probably dominate the search results here, because even though the search is on google.fr, the content being sought is in English, which favours English content sites we suspect.

  • That for scenario C, google.com is often accepted as being the universal search engine, bringing content from around the world in the English language. Essentially though, google.com is the US local search engine, and it’s increasingly hard to use google. com from elsewhere in the world without really insisting. We would expect to see a balance of agencies and schools here as this is more of an open competitive space. That said, we might also see many more schools here, because this, if anywhere is where local schools in the US are going to feature.

So much for our hypotheses.

And the search results are in!

This table summarises all the information we got from the first page for each of the three search scenarios.

Summary of first page search results for each scenario
Green = schools, Yellow = agencies, Blue = online providers.

Scenario A: a search term translated into French on a French search engine

With the local language search, simulating a French person searching:

cours d’anglais à boston usa

…in French on google.fr for an English programme in Boston, USA, we see a mixture of agencies and schools who have taken the trouble to translate their entire sites into French (see screenshot A).

This is more or less in line with our expectations. As you’ll see from the summary table above, we’re seeing many more agents than schools (7 agency listings for 3 schools – notice how one agency has 4 positions). However not in the top position. That suggests that significant emphasis remains on the search string, as opposed to the geographical location of the organisation providing the content. We’ve known that for a while and agencies do find it difficult to compete if they’re not in the physical location mentioned in the search string.

If you want to feature on that list as a school, it’s important to translate your site fully, right down to the booking engine and the terms and conditions, and then have a content strategy about pushing out translated content relevant to that market. Having Google Translate on your site is not enough, and doesn’t serve that purpose (though it does improve customer service).

As a school competing with agencies for that prime spot, you’ll see that it is totally possible to feature highly. In very competitive locations, where a single agency might have lots of schools on offer within one geographical destination, you might find the competition is more intense than in our example city of Boston. That said, agencies with many destinations have to work so much harder to stay highly positioned for many keyword searches. So if you only have one or a few school locations, with work you can get there.

So in short, translate everything if you want to be on this list. Your Analytics won’t tell you what traffic you’re missing out on, so you won’t know until you take the plunge. It’s for this reason that many schools choose to start closer to home with searches and content around their own native language. The switch in focus to optimised translated website content can happen once you’ve optimised your 'own language' content.

Scenario B: a search in English on a French search engine

However unnatural this one might seem, we do see that on google.fr a search string that would have been translated by a native French speaker into English would yield the results you can see in screenshot B. You’ll see that again, it is possible to feature both as a school and an agency, but that in fact many more schools feature here. In fact 7 out of the 10 listings are from schools. Whilst this might be encouraging from a school perspective, we know this is that funny middle ground. Maybe not huge quantities of people search that way from their home country’s search engine, but the sum total of all of these English language searches may still be highly significant as a traffic generator.

We’re uncertain of the algorithm that Google is applying when working out the relevance of a site for a given search term, versus the importance it is placing on the geographic location (geolocation) of the provider and the searcher, and the importance of the country search engine being used.

It will be by having a clearer understanding of how your site currently attracts visitors that we’ll best understand your particular route forward. If you are seeing evidence in Analytics of search terms translated into the language you’re teaching, but entered on an overseas search engine, then we would recommend you push your content strategy in that direction. So as an English course provider, for example, if a proportion of your site visitors come through on English language search terms, regardless of which search engine is being used – e.g. google.fr, google.it, google.pl – then the biggest benefit may well be from first optimising your site in English.

Once you’ve achieved that, maybe a year down the line, it will be a good time to come back and start thinking about a country-specific strategy where you translate and generate content in one or more key markets (scenario A).

Scenario C: a search in English on a US search engine

Lastly, we’ll take a look at what search results look like for the same search term on google.com. Here you have a search string entered in English on an English search engine. We hypothesized that this could go either way – that you might have big international agencies who have translated into English (or which have English as their first language), but also that we might have a bunch of local schools featuring there too. In short we didn’t know.

Sure enough, here you do get a clear blend of agent and direct schools, with different providers featuring. If anything there are slightly fewer schools than agents (6 out of 10 organic listings are from schools)

Before launching into a particular strategic content plan, it is therefore imperative to understand where your current traffic is coming from. To answer part of that question, you need to take a look at your Analytics and understand how well you’re featuring and where your top searches are coming from. With an audit of your keyword landscape, you will also have a much clearer idea of which keywords you ought to be ranking for, and where on the most relevant search engines you rank. If you’re nowhere near the top ten then it might be wise to start with optimising what you already have. If you are doing well for searches in your own language, then it could be a good time to branch out and really commit to a translation strategy.

We’d also recommend picking a pilot country where you also have staff in the school capable of answering enquiries and supporting bookings and applications in that language, so you can provide a continuous service through to arrival. That’s because there’s little point putting time and effort into site visitors, if you fail to convert enquiries into bookings because no one can understand what the client is asking for. With more students jumping on messaging apps, that native speaker response is critical. There’s no time for outsourced translation at the sharp end of customer service.

The Elephant in the room

Of course, what we’ve neatly omitted to highlight here is the dominance of both Google Adwords results and of Local Search results. The amount of screen space allocated to paid advertising which doesn’t look like paid advertising is very much Google’s strategy.

We still don’t advocate jumping on the Adwords bandwagon. We’re more interested in getting you in to the top three for the most relevant search terms. During our audits, we work out a custom content strategy for you which fits with your size, scale, location, available resources and current competition for the top keywords. We also plan for you to get early wins which will fuel your future work.

In conclusion, should I translate my website or not?

A quick answer for language school owners.

If you’ve jumped straight to the conclusion, we get it, you’re busy. First, understand your search landscape by conducting an audit. It will tell you where you’re going right, and were you might be losing traffic. We suspect you could get fast returns from optimising your content in your native language. Then, as you have staff to support the strategy, start translating your website and every part of your processes (including customer service) into other languages. Start with the languages of countries you’d like to see more students from and let it snowball out from there. Seek to get the value from an uplift in student traffic and bookings from the enquiries you feel best equipped to convert into bookings as a priority. Then you can use your increased revenue to fund the next wave of translation. Or retire to your desert island.

And if you couldn’t even be bothered to read the conclusion…

  • First, understand and optimise what you already have.
  • Second, translate all of your website, choose the language strategically.
  • Third, ensure you have native speaker staff to match your translation choices.