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SearchTHIS: Thinking Beyond Borders

SearchTHIS: Thinking Beyond Borders Kevin Ryan

Chewing gum was illegal in Singapore until very recently -- as in you couldn't buy Bubblicious® anywhere in said country. In Germany, if one has a Web site and hopes to conduct commerce, one had better provide a physical address, telephone number and email contact information. Last October, Google's French subsidiary was fined 75,000 Euros for allowing advertisers other than the trademark owner to bid on the phrase "bourse des vols."

Europe, like Singapore, represents a smaller but growing audience for search engine marketing (SEM). Search sites are racing to establish dominance around the globe to capitalize on search ad revenue gold. Marketers are biting at the bit to reach out to emerging audiences in Europe and beyond despite industry analysts agreeing that search is about 12 to 18 months behind the United States.

Targeting European audiences in paid search from within the confines of our newly secured homeland can be a daunting task. Language is a barrier. Differing behaviors in commerce activity may also form a blockage. However, understanding the dynamics of each audience and their online seeking activity can help you cross oceans and build connected channels of commerce.

Not bigger, but faster penetration

Before we start comparing behavioral data from the U.S. and Europe, it is important to cite the audience dimensions in these countries. Our American audience is about 207 million, while the next largest audience in Germany is nearly 45 million. The United Kingdom is close to 35 million, followed by France with 22 million -- according to Internet World Stats. Add them all up and you have about half the U.S. audience.

So why is Europe looking so appealing lately? The answer rests with Internet usage growth statistics. From 2000 to 2004, our domestic Internet audience grew about 117 percent, and about 70 percent of our population is now online. In the same period, audience growth in the United Kingdom was in the neighborhood of 125 percent, while penetration is only 58 percent. In France, the Internet audience is a little over 37 percent of its population, and the growth rate is an astonishing 162 percent.

The fact is audience growth in the United States is starting to slow a bit compared to our European counterparts, which leaves us with an interesting choice. We can wax poetic about all of the great things we have accomplished here, or we can begin our trek across the Atlantic.

Behavioral persnicketiness

Americans are not known for global political correctness. Yours truly has long since abandoned any hope of global sensitivity faultlessness in the new millennium. That's a failed expectation, I might add, that bears an astonishing resemblance to the mindset I deployed in the last millennium. Despite possessing citizenship in the European Union via the Republic of Ireland, I -- along with many friends and family in my homeland -- have little need for Google's search site in our  native language, but we all think it's really neat.

Whether your language is Gaelic, Greek or German, the first step to understanding our neighbors across the pond would be a look at their search behavior.

About 12 to 18 months behind the release of qSearch, comScore networks announced last week the introduction of qSearch Europe to monitor the activity of searchers in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Though it should come as no surprise to anyone, search activity is slightly different in top European destinations, and Google has come out on top in audience search frequency.

Like Canada, users in the United Kingdom tend to conduct more searches than Americans. The Brits conduct about seven more searches per month than us, at about 42 searches per month. France and Germany were slightly behind us with 34 and 31 searches per month, respectively.

As stated, audiences in these countries tend to favor Google for searching. Yahoo!, MSN and AOL have significant reach in these areas, but for some reason, searchers go to the search utility at Google to find what they need. For example, comScore pointed out that nearly 80 percent of U.K. Internet users visited MSN-Microsoft sites in April, but just 34 percent used MSN for search. A similar trend exists in France and Germany as well.

The difficulty of teaching visitors to use portals as a trusted search utility as well is a problem of mindset. A portal is a really neat place to get your email and the latest pushed info on Britney Spears' tour, but when you search, you need a search utility. Does that predicament sound domestically familiar?

AdWords in Europe would seem to be a smart buy then. However, Overture possesses the most efficient way to reach MSN and Yahoo! users in said countries. One should not resist taking full advantage of Overture's lack of home-grown traffic with key listing partners such as AltaVista, AOL, AskJeeves, Freeserve, Lycos and Tiscali as well. Looks like Overture and Google dominate the search space in Europe as well, but it is not quite as simple as flipping a switch to target Europe.

"Icht benign beginner"

The words John F. Kennedy actually uttered were "Ich bin ein Berliner" in his speech on June 26, 1963. Kennedy wanted to express solidarity with the people of Germany in their fight against the spread of communist aggression by saying "I am from Berlin." Popular urban legend says his phrase was misinterpreted as "I am a jelly doughnut."

You know where I am going with this, don't you? The ever present language barrier of course, a problem which can be remedied one of several ways.

Google has an interesting automatic translator. But is it good enough? I translated J.F.K.'s famous statement and sure enough, the translator returned the phrase, "I am a citizen of Berlin." However, I then translated the phrase "bourse des vols", a trademarked brand name of the French travel firm. When translated, the phrase should look something like "Flights Marketplace." According to Google's translator the phrase meant "purse of the flights." It is a brand name, so I capitalized each letter of the phrase and got "Stock Exchange of the Flights." We might need another option.

"Relying on automatic translators can lead to disaster," says Ron Belanger, Carat Interactive's vice president of search. "When applying international disciplines to search, it pays to hire a local translator."

Local talent is definitely better than a simple translating tool. Another method is to use the resources that exist within each search provider. Both Google and Overture have increased their presence in Europe, and relying on intermingled staffers for translating duties may present another option.

"The sales teams in each country are able to work closely with the other European sales teams to create cross-market proposals for advertisers," says an Overture spokesperson. Overture has chosen Ireland (a grand endeavor, lads -- have a pint on me) for its European headquarters, housing its editorial and customer service staff in Dublin.

Getting inside the culture

Not to be outdone by the bigger players in Europe, United Kingdom-based Espotting conducts something in the neighborhood of a billion searches a month in European destinations, employs about 240 throughout Europe, and places specialized services units within each country to help marketers understand European audiences beyond simply matching languages.

"There are major differentiating factors U.S. marketers going into Europe must consider" advises Seb Bishop, co-founder, Espotting Media. "In America, you design a site for an audience. In Europe you have to design an experience for many languages and cultures."

While sorting out the language issue, a marketer must think about the culture of target audiences. Bishop says site design is another area that must be considered. "Site cultural translation is tricky. Marketers must ask, 'Am I designing my site for people who speak French or the people in France?' The difference can be night and day."

Bishop makes a very good point here. Every country is slightly different and some are very strict about how site relationships are developed. In Germany, there's the required contact information, for example. Another consideration is the maturity of commerce activity. Is it standard practice to enter credit card information for a purchase? If it isn't, you'd better happily offer an alternative. Speaking of payment options, pay-per-call is another emerging arena in Europe which demands attention.

There are lots of ways to think inside the culture of European targets. Some of them would seem to be common sense, but as Voltaire said, common sense is not so common. Consider the meaning of holiday (that would be vacation) in the United Kingdom. How about differences in holidays (American definition) like Mother's Day? Mothering Sunday occurs quite a bit earlier in the calendar year in England. Are there social events and activities unique to these countries which can either enhance or destroy a search campaign? You bet there are, each territory and country has its own guidelines, habits and cultural proclivities. It is better to learn them prior to jumping into the channel for a light afternoon swim.

The bold new lands

I tend to think of each country in terms of the type of women (as opposed to search engine) it has to offer. If I had to combine the two ranking criteria, Google Eesti would top my list. For the sake of your own entertainment, visit Search Engine Colossus for a reality check on just how many search sites exist. If you want more fun, go to Google's international page and check out the Elmer Fudd search language engine. Both sites offer a good starting point for understanding the rest of the great big world out there.

At the end of the day, I still find myself asking: How could something as benign as chewing gum be illegal? Well, some Darwin Award candidate stuffed a big wad into a transit train door one day and a whole bunch of people were late to their destination. It was only recently that certain types of gum with medicinal qualities could be purchased at a pharmacy. So, you still can't buy bubble gum in Singapore, but you can reach beyond the border audiences with sticky search tactics.

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations. Ryan was born in the United States, spends entirely too much time in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, and somehow left his heart in Estonia.

Online, a good web presence can make or break your company. If a potential customer lands on your site and is immediately overwhelmed by an overload of information, hard-to-read text, and advertisements, they will likely be turned off and go elsewhere to find a similar service. Who would waste their time browsing through an impossibly confusing site?

Great companies with surprisingly boring websites

Let's compare this situation to a real-world analogy. You presumably wouldn't walk into a corporate business meeting in jeans and a ratty old t-shirt. Why? You'd look unprofessional, stand out (in a bad way), and make a poor impression on yourself and your company. Not many people, with the exception of a few highly respected world leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists, could pull that off and still garner respect. On the internet, these individuals come few and far in the form of websites. In other words, it's hard to find a well-respected company with a website comparable to a business professional dressed down in old jeans and a t-shirt.

Of course, these websites do exist -- what they all have in common is their superb and unique service. The customer simply does not care enough about the site's aesthetics to let that stop them from using the company's service. Furthermore, these customers often do not embrace change, especially for relatively straightforward services -- which may be why changes in such company's websites are typically subtle. Let's take a look at four respectable companies with lackluster web presences that don't measure up to the company's success or reputation.


If you haven't used Craigslist or know someone who's used Craigslist, you've surely heard about the monster classified ads website. Whether you're looking for jobs, to buy or sell items or services, a new roommate (search at your own risk), or even personals and missed love connections, Craigslist likely has what you need. You can find anything (honestly anything) from a used TV for sale to someone who will clean your pool for you. From the normal to the most bizarre requests, Craigslist truly has it all -- except a visually appealing website.

When you first load the site, your vision is flooded with lists and lists of categories in blue text: jobs, for-sales, services, discussion forums, and more -- and it is not pretty. The only apparent organization system on the site seems to be by title. If you're looking for a menu bar for assistance, give up because there isn't one. Everything is right on the site's homepage. What you see is what you get. In certain aspects, it's simple -- click on what you're looking for and follow the prompts. In other ways, it's unnecessarily complicated with a lack of any form of organization system whatsoever. Either way, it works -- in 2012, the estimated revenue of the private company was $126 million. With more than 60 million users a month in the U.S. alone and 50 billion monthly page views, Craigslist has clearly managed to uphold its reputation despite its plain web presence.


Like Craigslist, Reddit is a free, community-based site. However, instead of selling things, members simply post content such as text, images, or direct links. The content can be virtually anything -- news, jokes, random thoughts, crowdsourcing, etc. Community members ("redditors") vote on stories and discussions they like, so that the best content stays at the top and the unpopular stuff dwindles away into cyberspace. Also, unlike Craigslist, Reddit receives a portion of its revenue from advertising. It recently announced it would be giving 10 percent of advertising revenue to charity.

Another thing Reddit has in common with Craigslist is its visually unappealing interface. While it comes in slightly ahead of Craigslist simply because the content that's posted on Reddit often employs images, it's not far behind. The site is set up in a list format and looks like it hasn't been changed much since it was launched. With blue text overlaying a white background, the design isn't a far cry from Craigslist and is far from sophisticated or unique. Nevertheless, millions of users use and subscribe to Reddit every day, confirming its reputation and popularity. Its bland site design and lack of visual appeal clearly don't correlate to this company's success.

If you have a business platform that is so unique and important for people to use that they don't care about aesthetics, that's fantastic. But for most of us, we need that web presence to boost our reputation and make us look like we're ready to attend that business meeting. Here are a couple of smaller, but well-to-do companies who could benefit from a site overhaul.


Plenty of "deal of the day" websites require you to register before you can see the actual deals, but Zulily's homepage gives you next-to-no information about what the site does. One of its biggest design problems is that the little bit of information you can find about how the site works is buried at the bottom of the page under a banner that looks like advertising -- thus making the viewer ignore everything below it. Another issue is that links to "How Zulily Works," "Brands We Love," and "FAQ" appear in tiny type. Furthermore, there is no secondary call to action if the visitor isn't ready to register. What would make them decide to return? The bottom line regarding Zulily's website design is that it's simply too difficult for non-registered users to learn about the site. If you're going to be a membership-only site, at the very least allow non-members to easily learn about the benefits of joining. You'll not only be helping them, you'll be helping yourself get more members.

Pure Ecommerce

 Unlike Pure Ecommerce's site, this description will remain short and sweet. Essentially, you have to read through lengthy blocks of copy just to find out what the company offers. Once we click on its call to action, we're only directed to more copy and blocks of texts with little visual relief. Not exactly a one-click, ready-to-go experience as promised. 


Ultimately, where Craigslist and Reddit differ from Zulily and Pure Ecommerce is in their ease of use. While none of the aforementioned sites are particularly appealing from a visual perspective, Craigslist and Reddit hit the nail on the head with user-friendliness and simplicity. Zulily and Pure Ecommerce, two companies with a solid service and great potential, should take notes from Craigslist and Reddit. If you're going to be bold enough to neglect your web presence, at the very least make sure your site has a key essential: functionality. Can you think of any successful companies with sub-par websites? Please feel free to share below in a comment.

Emily Weeks is the social media and marketing coordinator at HMG Creative.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Sleeping on laptop" image via Shutterstock.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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