The Enigma: SEO & Asia-Pacific

Authors: Don Shin (CEO at 1-StopAsia) & Gergana Toleva (Global Marketing Manager)

Note: The article was first published at Multilingual Magazine in their Issue on Asia-Pacific in 2020. It has been recently updated with statistical data from March, 2021. Other content remains unchanged as we’d like to keep its original thesis as published.

When we started compiling this article for the current issue, things around the world were much different than now. And while a lot of the things we’ve addressed are valid so far, it is very interesting to reflect on how things changed rapidly in just a few months and what shifts the last 4 – 5 months brought. Two things are quite clear at the moment:

Fact #1: The East is not that far away from the West as we used to think

Fact #2: Globalization is never going to be the same in terms of travel and movement of people around the world

The day the world went online!

…and so did every business that had this opportunity – a fast switch to digital in the current days means a greater chance for success. And here comes the topic we’ve chosen to address, which interestingly became more valid than ever. In general, the digital presence of a company in the world has never been more important than now and the companies that are good at this will be the winners out of this situation. Along with that comes the ever-present need to not only be there but to rank at the front pages, be seen and be with excellent online reputation.

That is where we would like to make a point: to take into account that for Asia and in particular the APAC (Asia Pacific Region), where technologies develop every single minute digital presence is of the essence for every business that wants to thrive. And even more so in the current times when travel is down, borders are closed and people are constantly online. 

The Translation industry & Asian languages

While the translation industry is still trying to assess what the COVID-19 will bring to us all, just a short research on translation services will give you an interesting result – a large number of the queries are currently happening in Asian countries! Having said that, the reasons behind this occurrence are numerous, and not all of them are easy to spot at first sight:

Reason #1: Rise in demand of in-between Asian language pairs – due to the complicated nature of most Asian languages, it might be necessary that translations go through English first in order to reach the second Asian language.

Reason #2: Many of the companies already have offices in Asia and manage their inquiries through those offices. So most of the searches, even those that are from Asia, are actually from branches of Western companies in Asia. In other words, demand is still Asian to Western languages and vice versa.

Reason #3: The interest for doing business between the East and the West is at an interesting crossroad at the moment, and the industry that has to build a bridge between them is a complicated mixture of Translation, Localization, Marketing, and Modern Technologies.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Asia

For someone who approaches Asia as a market for the first time, it’s similar to the universe Douglas Adams describes in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. And with good reason! Asia is so culturally, linguistically and geographically diverse — it sounds cliché, but we can’t skip it — that the well-ordered world of Western languages, along with the option to always use English, is shaken from its foundations when the East meets the West for business.

Just the Vietnamese speakers (over 76 million) are more than the population of a country like France. The same goes for Bahasa Indonesia, which numbers around 43 million speakers as a first language. Imagine a mid-sized western company approaching these markets, and the possibilities they have for success IF all goes well.

Let’s consider that we’ve done our research and we’ve decided we want to target China. Time to set up a nice website, go through the hassle of obtaining a license to operate in China, and then translate it into Mandarin Chinese. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, of course there is!

We’ve discovered Translation and Localization go hand in hand, and we’ve done that, too.

So what are we missing in the grand scheme? 

The fact is that even if you’ve done all of the above, you can still fail due to the lack of a customized digital presence for the right market. In modern, digital, fast-paced economies like the ones of China, Japan and India, that includes utilizing all means possible.

Where does SEO fit?

Google Keywords and Google Trends don’t work well enough to plan a proper SEO strategy and to launch effective SEM campaigns in Asia — at least not everywhere. But even in countries like Vietnam, where Google is the major Search engine, there are specific details that have to be considered prior to SEO optimization and launching SEM campaigns. So how do we go about it?

What an LSP can do about SEO?

From where we stand now as an LSP with years of experience in the Asian markets – SEO for any country can be treated as a Translation, Editing, Proofreading (TEP) task. But that is not enough and would never be — as even the best optimized website and the perfectly localized language are not enough if you are a leader in Google, while your audience is using WeChat, right?

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Our point is that SEO is not a mere translation of words researched and properly listed in a tool under a certain budget. Not at all. It may seem like that but in real life, SEO is a living breathing “thing” that you have to maintain on many different levels in order to reach your business goals.

It is the whole picture drawn before the eyes of your audience by your digital presence and if this image will click with it. 

Prior to doing any SEO for any market, we’ve got to cover the major rule in our plan! We need to know where people go. In other words:

Focus on searchers!

Different things work on different markets and SEO strategy is not an exception. It is localized as everything else and the fact is it doesn’t work in any other way, if you want to succeed on an Asian market. The most important remains the local knowledge and where your customers are. After all, if we want a fish we will go to a fish market not in a mall.

If we look into the Chinese search engines popularity dynamics, one reason for the 2nd search engine Sogou to rise from a 2 % market share in Feb 2019 to 24% market share in October 2019 is the fact that it is integrating content from WeChat and QQ. And for China this is where users are.

Convince me that you are a human from my world and I’ll click on your digital portfolio! (Gergana Toleva  – Global Marketing Manager)

A successful SEO strategy requires you to be a local, sound local and know where locals are, all this while being a foreigner. The amazing part being the necessity to appear human and communicating all this in a digital environment. Having in mind the diversity of Asia, this requires careful planning, analysis and cultural knowledge. There is no magic pill here. Only hard, well-planned and precise work!

The APAC region is so diverse in countries, cultures, nations and languages that an “Ultimate Guide” will fail big time almost as big as the name sounds.

Now in order to prevent that from happening, let’s get down to business and see our top picks for countries in which we’ve decided to share our experience with you.

Asia-Pacific Specifics

You’ve heard of Baidu, Bing and Yahoo, but what about Sogou, Shenma or Naver? Are you clear on what makes them popular among users and why they are performing well in some countries while a major player like Google steps back?

And is Google really stepping back or …?

A short research on what is dominant in the area shows that most countries use Google for a Search Engine. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to plan a strategy for SEO optimization and a marketing strategy for any of the Asian countries that use it.

Overtaking the “Great Firewall of China”? A mission possible!

The Chinese market is huge in proportions and it is for the taking, so we’ve compiled a list of common issues that you would encounter and possible ways to avoid them.

The TOP3 Players on the Chinese market

The data for the Chinese market varies based on different statistics but the trend is the same. About 70% of the Search Engine market share in China belongs to Baidu and Sogou is picking up speed with growth from 4% in February 2019 to about 20% in March 2020. Top 3 is completed by the Search Engine Shenma, which does mobile search only and holds a remarkable (for a mobile-only search engine) over 4.5% market share. We’ve listed our picks on how to navigate them below:

I. Baidu (up-to-date the largest on the market)

  1. Baidu thinks differently and so are the users on the Chinese market
  2. Fast Loading websites are prioritized by Baidu. It focuses on Mainland China, so consider using a .cn domain
  3. Anything “Google” will cause a delay of your website with 40 – 90 sec.
  4. Money Plant (绿萝) is the hyperlink cheaters online police. It searches for hyperlink cheaters and websites that rely heavily on building backlinks, so they can lose their positions. That of course has its exceptions.
  5. Pomegranate (石榴) is another algorithm that aims to penalize multiple and overwhelming advertisements done on Chinese websites.

II. Sogou (a strategic investment by Tencent)

  1. Tencent is one of the largest Internet companies in the world and Sogou is quickly becoming the second largest search engine in China.
  2. Its main advantage is integrating content from WeChat and QQ – two media networks that are highly popular but their content is not available on Baidu.
  3. It has a unique search engine method that claims that “It anticipates users’ search intentions in real-time and allows them to search directly with Sogou Search through its embedded search function.”
  4. Highly flexible when it comes to personalization by the so-called “skins”, which is very attractive to the millennials.

III. Shenma – mobile only but 3rd in market share for search engines in China!

  1. It’s no wonder that at some point Shenma was holding second place in such a digital market like China.
  2. Shenma states they are an exclusive mix between a search engine & app store.
  3. If you are a brand that wants maximum reach, imagine how many 4.5% of users are in a country like China.

Rising like the Sun in Japan

Yahoo!Japan is no longer holding the first place as a search engine in Japan. The Japanese Google is now holding between 73% – 77% of the market as per data from March 2021  taken from various resources (StatCounter and Zodigital.jp). Bing is 3rd with between 4% – 6%  of the market share as per March 2021 statistics.

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I. Google in Japan

  1. Keywords in Japanese are a crucial milestone for your website’s SEO strategy because there are so many ways to say or write a single word.
  2. As high-quality content is extremely important for the Japanese, use locals to create it. The language is so complicated for translation that everything should be flawless otherwise it will drive Japanese customers away from your brand.
  3. Clean and zen has nothing to do with the way Japanese audiences perceive information online. “Busy” is the design slang that comes to mind when you check a popular brand in there.

II. Yahoo!Japan

  1. Yahoo presents content to the search queries differently – sometimes they add unique content like a hot topic even though it does not have a  top position yet.
  2. It is still popular but not as a Search Engine anymore. It is now used more like a web portal for information.
  3. Yahoo!Japan has a completely different layout and presentation of the information.
  4. To produce quality content for the Japanese audience, opt for local content writers and native speakers. Japanese language is extremely sensitive and evolves very fast over time, so it is important for your content to be written in an up-to-date Japanese language.

III. Bing 

  1. Social Media are in reality a key factor in Bing, which you should consider when preparing a strategy.
  2. The page load time is one of the technical factors for Bing to rank you ahead of others.
  3. Meta keywords and descriptions are something that actually works, so use them wisely.

South Korea – Web portal or Search engine?

Statistics for Korea user preferences on the search engine market are a variable. But one thing is for sure – one can’t plan a proper SEO strategy without considering the two major players on the market there – Google and Naver.

Korea offers a true challenge when we talk about SEO, Search Engines shares, and a winning marketing strategy. It is more open to the outside world for business and at the same time it is still a traditional Asian country. When one is on the hunt for statistics and data on search engine shares, that might prove quite a difficult task, especially for an outsider.

We dug deeper and we found 3 different statistics on the topic, which vary drastically but to be fair we will share the numbers of all 3 and then get into the real deal of SEO advice for Korean markets. To summarize:

  1. A local media Joins.com shares the following survey made among Korean users:
    • –  Naver is with 74%.4 share
    • –  Google seconds them with a 13.2%
    • –  Daum is third with 9.6%
  2.  Another one from the Internettrend.co.kr (last updated March, 2021)
    • –  Naver holds 53.01 %
    • –  Google – 42.03%
    • –  Daum – 2.91%
  3. StatCounter  (last updated March, 2021) we used so far shows us the following:
    • –  Google 81.4%
    • –  Naver – 12.96%
    • –  Bing/Daum – around 2% and changing

We’d probably sound weird if we say they are not necessarily wrong about South Korea and the fact is that different statistics measure different variables. That is why we’d share our experience rather than statistics here.

The insider’s view on Korean Search

There is no denial Google is growing fast but if you want to search like a local and reach the locals, most of the information will be on Naver, not Google.

The different segments on the market can also be found on the different search engines.

For example, Google is more popular for IT and younger generations, while B2C companies, products and information are still mostly using Naver. That is of course based on user preferences, so when considering your strategy for the South Korean market one should definitely take into account these factors.

That is why the one search engine we will talk about despite the statistics is Naver. Its logic and layout are completely different from Google’s. It classifies mostly user-generated content, paid ads, and blogs or community pages, rather than generate organic results after crawling through the entire internet (which is what Google does). This is why Naver is more a Web portal than a Search Engine and the fact is only translating your website won’t do if you plan to make the most out of it.

  1. Koreans search in a totally different way than English-speaking users. Keywords are short-tailed due to the fact that the Korean language is more concise.
  2. Accordingly, SEO is short, simple, and straight to the point, which requires local knowledge in order to generate the most effective strategies for the market.
  3. The search term influences the order of the Vertical search result, which leads to the fact that using the proper search term and later on the proper keywords, is of great importance to reach your target group.
  4. C-Rank and P-Rank – C stands for “Creator Rank” and is mainly focused on user-generated content, while P-Rank is an attempt to assess the SEO and organic rankings of a website.

SEA & SEO

South-East Asia (SEA) is the region in Asia where the language barrier is not as big as in the countries above and the usage of English as a second language gives a better option for market penetration for companies coming from the western countries. However, that doesn’t make the task any easier due to the fact that the audiences are much more different in perception, mentality, and user habits.

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We’ve selected a few of the “smaller” and less familiar to the general public markets in the area, which we think are interesting and have quite a few things to offer to an investor.  Despite the fact that Google is dominant in all three of these countries, there are still a few things to consider before you dive into doing business there.

Vietnam – go digital or go down!

For a country that opened to the internet 2 decades ago, Vietnam is in the Top 20 by the number of internet users, which is an outstanding achievement for such a short period. That is why when we say that to “Go Digital” is a must, consider it the major rule for a successful business there. Over 90% of the Search Engine Market in March 2021 is held by Google and the second is the Search Engine CocCoc.

  1. Local language
  2. Go mobile-first and then the rest
  3. Quality content is what rules for better ranking

Malaysia – M for Mobile first!

Google is the dominant Search engine in the country and it is interesting that Malaysia Internet users are very well-versed in English as well as Malay, which is the local language.

  1. Over 70% of internet users are using mobile devices, so the first step to do is to plan for a mobile-friendly service presentation with an excellent digital presence.
  2. Besides that, the winning strategy in this country is “Localization of the content”, as well as your online presence, is very important.
  3. Be aware of local specifics like the fact that Rich Snippets are something worth optimizing for in Malaysia because not many websites do that.
  4. Having your website in both Malay and English will cover both language groups in the country and will give you higher exposure to potential users.

Cambodia – The “Wild Wild West” for Digital Adventurers

In March.2019 the first tech and digital convention was held in Cambodia under the name “Digital Cambodia”, which shows the government’s focus on turning the country into a digital force with a spot of its own on the world’s digital map. And to be honest, why not?

The country skipped the years of technical improvement of the more developed Western economies and jumped straight into the era of optical Internet connection. Furthermore,  mobile penetration in Cambodia is at a stage where there are more mobile phones (SIM cards) per capita than people.

To sweeten the pot, there is a quickly developing digital environment in the country with a lack of experienced people to work. Along with it comes the local language spoken by the Cambodians – Khmer, which looks like that – ភាសាខ្មែរ – and a great challenge is on the way.

So how do we go about conquering this market with an SEO strategy and is it only SEO that will pay off?

  1. Above 95% use Google Search Engine and it has a Khmer version
  2. Facebook use is growing and a lot of the searches start on Facebook not Google
  3. Optimize for mobile – with so many users of mobile phones – this is an essential part
  4. Work on your Brand and Brand message – it is very important in Cambodia
  5. Localize as much as possible as Cambodians are highly aware of their culture
  6. Have in mind that Phnom Penh is not the same as the rest of Cambodia, so do your research on your target audience first

In Conclusion

We’ve been carefully observing the behavior of users around the world from the front seat in the last year now. We clearly saw the chain reaction the pandemic caused but what we are seeing now is how countries were closing their borders but at the same time were opening their online markets. There is a clear reason behind that – we don’t need to travel in order to do business. 

The only thing that we need is to find the proper audience and get its attention. Online business has never seen a stronger push than it currently has and one of the proper actions one has to do is to improve and increase its online presence. With this said SEO is one of the most important and accessible places to start from.

To prove all of the above, here is a recent trend we’ve noticed: in the two most affected countries in Asia from the COVID-19 (China and South Korea), there is something curious to see about the search engine market shares.  Right from the very moment the pandemic started, we started to see an increase in the traffic towards the traditional in-country search engines.

This all might mean two things:

  1. The example we used for a company to enter the Chinese market needs a strategy update right away due to the changes noticed in these markets.
  2. Countries are closing due to the pandemic and users are turning to the most well-known and reliable resources they recognize. It is prominent for these countries mainly because Google is not the main market share and it only confirms the thesis we supported in the beginning:

SEO is not a mere translation of words researched and properly listed in a tool under a certain budget. Not at all. It may seem like that but in real life, SEO is a living breathing “thing” that you have to maintain on many different levels in order to reach your business goals.

It is the whole picture drawn before the eyes of your audience by your digital presence and if this image will click with it. 

So let’s go and think over our strategies now!