SEO translation vs localisation

SEO translation is a term that is gaining importance – both within translation circles and the SEO industry. More and more companies – be it in the UK or abroad – are looking to expand overseas and target new markets. 

This is not a new development, but it is a trend that has been accelerated by the global pandemic. Remote working means that location is no longer as important as it once was, and shopping online is now the norm. 

International SEO is booming as a result and more and more UK SEO agencies are adding international SEO to their specialities. But international SEO is only possible with translation and localisation. And SEO agencies and companies can only succeed with their international SEO strategies if they understand the role that SEO translation and localisation need to play in this work.

This article explains some of the key terms within the field of SEO translation and localisation. Beginning with a definition of translation vs localisation (or localization) and then explaining how both of these are key for international SEO. 

We will explain what websites need from SEO translation and localisation, and offer some tips that will help make your international SEO strategy a success.

Translation vs localisation

Translation and localisation are two terms that are closely linked, often confused and regularly used interchangeably.

What’s the difference between translation and localisation?

Translation means to translate content from one language (the source language) to another (the target language). It ranges from literal or word-for-word translation to high-quality translations that read like a text that has been written in the target language. 

Localisation is a more general term that means to adapt content for a specific country or market. It may include translation but doesn’t always. 

Consider, for example, a UK eCommerce company looking to expand to Germany and the US. The version of the company’s website intended for the German audience would need to be translated into German and localised for the German market – in other words, the prices changed from GBP to EUR, any references to local UK culture adapted for the German audience, etc. 

Meanwhile, the US version of the website wouldn’t need translating but it would need localising. Again this would involve changing the currency, adapting any references to UK culture for the US market, ensuring the content is tweaked with the US audience in mind (e.g. removing any UK spellings or UK-specific words, changing the tone to suit the US market).

SEO translation and localisation

Until relatively recently, SEO was largely ignored by the translation industry and there was little talk of SEO translation and keyword localisation

Thankfully this is now changing. Just as SEO has a key role to play in the visibility (and, therefore, success) of UK websites, so SEO translation and keyword localisation are vital if a company is looking to achieve success with the international versions of its website too.

Spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds on translating websites without paying any attention to SEO and keywords is the same as spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on perfectly crafted copy for an English website without incorporating any keywords and implementing any kind of SEO strategy. The website may do well, but if it does it will be due to fortune rather than strategy.

What does SEO translation involve?

SEO translation is the umbrella term used to describe translations that are crafted with SEO in mind. Unlike normal translations, the translator needs to be well-versed in SEO. They need a good knowledge of on-page SEO, the importance of keywords and to be able to conduct keyword research in their native language. 

Like traditional translations, SEO translations concern the on-page content of websites – from homepages to landing pages, product pages and blog posts. But SEO translation also includes translating title tags and meta descriptions, and can involve translating PPC ads (Google, Facebook, etc.) as well as Amazon listings.

In all of these cases, the translator needs to integrate keyword research and SEO best practices into the translation process. In other words, they need to ensure that they are using the correct keywords and that these keywords are used correctly.

International SEO made easy

We have created an in-depth guide to keyword research for multilingual SEO – revealing all you need to know about the importance of keyword research for international SEO, keyword research tools and a behind-the-scenes look at how it all works.

SEO translation, localisation and international keyword research

So where does localisation come in? Like SEO translation, localisation is a key part of international SEO. One of the most important aspects of adapting a website for a different market is localising the keywords – in other words, making sure that the content includes the best keywords for the market in question. 

Languages rarely match up 1:1 (which is why literal translation often falls short) and there are a whole range of cultural factors that impact how people use search engines, including how people approach risk, how individualistic the culture is, etc. 

This coupled with the fact that you can’t just translate a keyword and expect it to have the same search volume in a different country means that the first step of any SEO translation process is keyword research or keyword localisation. 

Within the context of international SEO, keyword research means conducting the keyword research from scratch, as a British SEO would conduct keyword research for a UK website. 

By contrast, keyword localisation involves localising a seed list of keywords. This process is very different from translating keywords, i.e. putting them into Google Translate or even using a professional translator to translate them, but not paying any attention to their search volume. 

Keyword localisation involves drawing up a list of potential equivalent keywords and then using a keyword research tool and other research (e.g. checking local SERPs) to select the best keywords from this list.

Multilingual keyword research and keyword localisation are both tasks for SEO translators. 

Only native speakers have the cultural knowledge required to identify the correct search terms to use as keywords. Whether the SEO translation project involves localising a list of English keywords or drawing up a list of keywords from scratch, this knowledge of the local culture is essential to the process.

SEO translation tips for successful international SEO

So what do you need to bear in mind when it comes to SEO translation and your international SEO campaign? Here are our top tips for SEO translation:

Always localise keywords – never translate them

If you have a seed list of keywords, this should always be localised by an SEO translator from the target country or region. Alternatively, employ a native SEO translator to carry out the keyword research for the market in question.

Whether the research constitutes keyword localisation or keyword research, it should always involve using a keyword research tool and checking local SERPs. The keywords should be chosen based on ranking factors (i.e. search volume, intent, competition, etc.) and not  because they are the most accurate translation.

Avoid machine translation

It may save you money in the short term, but the poor quality of the translations is likely to do more harm than good when it comes to how the website is received by users.

Tailor the content for the market, not the language

Don’t use the same content for different countries speaking the same language, without localising it for the specific market in question. A website that has been translated into Spanish cannot be used in both Spain and Latin America without any localisation. There are key linguistic and cultural differences that need to be considered.

Use a professional SEO translator from the target market

Besides their background in translation and SEO, they will automatically take cultural differences into account, such as how direct to be, which CTAs to use, etc. and they will know how people from their country tend to use search engines.

Ensure that everything is localised correctly

E.G. currency, taxes, phone numbers, contact details – and don’t forget about aspects like seasonality. Summer here means winter in the southern hemisphere – not the best time to sell swimwear, for example.

Localise title tags and meta descriptions correctly

Ensure title tags and meta descriptions are written for the target market and contain localised keywords. They need to be localised not translated – in many cases they will read completely differently to the original versions due to cultural differences affecting calls to action and the use of different keywords.

Let’s summarise – the key distinction between the two processes

Translation is a fundamental process that transforms texts, while localizations change entire content and context between languages. 

Localisation has infinite possibilities that extend beyond translation. 

Translation can be a part of localisation, but the key factor is that the information is authentic and relevant to the local market.

SEO translation and localisation may seem daunting but they are a key part of international SEO. Luckily, you don’t have to master them yourself. Having a basic understanding of the processes will help a great deal. Then you just need to identify a partner who specialises in SEO translation and localisation, so that you can focus on your own area of expertise. Luckily, you have come to the right place.

Need help from a professional translation company for your marketing translations?

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.