Finding a place for SEO in translation

It’s a divisive subject, and an often-misunderstood one. The trouble is that if you get caught in the middle between salespeople and naysayers, it can be hard to get a clear picture of what search engine optimization (SEO) really is. Depending on who you talk to, you might hear SEO being dismissed, sneered at, praised, pushed, encouraged or discouraged — assuming that the person you’re talking to even knows what SEO is. But if you’re a translator and you ever work on web-based content, you should definitely know what it is. With some caveats, you should give serious consideration to how it can potentially add value to your translation work.

If you’re thinking that SEO is something for the client to worry about, something you can safely ignore, then you’re missing out on an opportunity to provide a service that actually synergizes quite well with your core business. The content of a website is a huge part of SEO, and as a translator, you’re effectively creating that content for your target language. You have the opportunity to use language to improve your client’s visibility, and that’s always going to be attractive to them.

First things first. As stated above, SEO stands for search engine optimization. In short, it’s a collection of techniques used to improve the rating a website is given by a search engine’s page-ranking system. This is a valuable result: the closer you are to the top of the results page, the better the chances that the user performing the search will click on the link to go to your website. That click can then potentially be converted into a sale, which is why so many businesses place such importance on their search engine ranking.

Clearing the air

There are a lot of misconceptions about SEO that are worth clearing up before we talk about the translator’s role. The first is that SEO is somehow cheating or gaming the system. While you’d be forgiven for thinking this way if all you’ve seen is the dark side of SEO, with spambots cluttering up social media feeds with nonsense language and misleading links, the truth is that SEO is not an inherently unethical practice. Although there are cases of websites abusing the system to improve their page rank, it’s important to realize that these are just the bad actors. The good ones are all but invisible to the reader even though their effect is real, and in that sense, they’re not unlike a good translator. Most search engines are actually quite good at spotting the so-called “black hat” operators who use improper methods, like inaccurate keywords or paid link-swapping agreements, and punishing them accordingly.

A related but equally inaccurate assumption is that SEO stands in opposition to the translator’s goal of making a text as fluent and beautiful as possible. Again, yes, there are plenty of examples of crude SEO — and yep, you guessed it, they’re often provided by nonnative speakers of a given language. But in principle, page-ranking algorithms are just a search engine’s attempt to objectively measure the quality of a website in order to provide added value to their users. Plenty of SEO techniques can produce entirely naturalistic text, and they can also genuinely improve the user’s experience. In other words, if you make an honest, open effort to maximize the quality of your website, then both you and your visitors will be rewarded.

There’s one more misconception to address, and that’s the claim that SEO is a dead art: that search engines have wised up to the techniques that SEO gurus used to enthuse about, and now any attempt to improve a website’s page ranking is futile. This assumption rests on a misunderstanding about what SEO is and why it’s needed. Yes, the site stands or falls on its own merits, but remember that SEO is itself about quality. Search engines perform better if you include relevant content and provide detailed machine-readable information about the site. In other words, they work best if you optimize your site for them. SEO remains alive and well: all that has changed since the term was first invented is that natural, high-quality writing has become more important than ever. And that, of course, is something translators excel at.

The translator’s role

So SEO is both valuable and useful, and hopefully you’re starting to be persuaded that it should be of interest to the translator. And what specifically can a translator do that others can’t? Translation, of course! If a client has already optimized their site in the source language, they will probably have a list of keywords and phrases in that language that their research has shown to be of interest to their customers. A translator can then localize this list by comparing it with their own list of commonly searched target language terms. To do so, you should translate the client’s keyword list and use a tool such as Google AdWords to find out if people search for the same terms in the target language. If they don’t, you can rephrase individual keywords to match the terms that people do search for.

Let’s break this down with a more concrete example. Imagine you’re a translation agency localizing your own website into a new language. It turns out that a lot of people are interested in searching for translation: too many, in fact. It’s such a common term that if you want to make a significant impact on your search engine ranking, simply using the word “translation” over and over again on your site isn’t likely to have much of an impact — you just won’t stand out from the crowd. Instead, you need to get more specific. A multiword phrase such as “English to Russian translation” is better, but with a little more digging, and a look at related search terms, you find that a lot of the people who search for that term are actually going to be looking for machine translation. If you’re hoping to show up in their results in order to persuade them that they’re making a terrible mistake, well, that’s very noble of you, but it’s going to be a hard sell in the short time it takes them to scroll past your search result and click on an automatic translation service instead. But with something like “English to Russian human translation,” we’re starting to get somewhere. You’re now more likely to be found by the people who are specifically searching for what you do, and you’re competing with far fewer other sites for their attention.

You can now sprinkle variations on this phrase around your site, rephrasing it and using synonyms where necessary to keep the text fresh and engaging for your human readers. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the keyword list — and take care not to fill pages with so many keywords that the text becomes unreadable. Apart from the effect on your users, search engines can spot when you’re flooding a page with irrelevant data, too. You can use a range of keyword density analysis tools to flag occasions when you might be overdoing it — and, of course, you can also use your eyes like the qualified linguist that you are.

Bear in mind as well that a web page’s metadata is a critical piece of the SEO puzzle. This is the section of the page that is usually only visible to the software that does the job of indexing the web, and it contains a general description of the page and various pieces of background information about it. If you’ve ever right-clicked on a file in Windows and viewed the Properties menu, it’s the kind of data you’d find in there. If your client doesn’t automatically give you access to a webpage’s metadata, ask them whether you can translate that, as well. Tweaking the human-readable content will get you some of the way, but without the metadata, your remaining options for optimizing their search ranking are going to be quite limited.

As a translator, there are a few elements of each page’s metadata to which you’ll want to pay particular attention. First, look at the web page’s title and description. The title is the string of text that gives a name to each browser tab, and it also appears along with the page description in your search engine results. If your customer finds you through Google, this is the first thing they’ll see, so make sure it looks good. That means both fields should be clear, concise and informative. Keep your titles below about 55 characters whenever possible, and your descriptions below 155, or they might be cut short in your search engine results (Google changes these limits from time to time).

Next, take a look at each page’s headers. If you’re editing a raw HTML file, you’ll see these enclosed inside tags like <h1>, <h2> and so on, while a CAT tool might identify them with placeholders and a web-based content management system will show them in a separate text box. These tags are important: they make the text stand out to both human users and search indexing software, so additional weight will be placed on any keywords used within them. Make sure each page contains unique headings going down to at least level two.

Thirdly, make sure that as many images as possible include so-called “alt text.” This is the text that pops up when you mouse over an image on the web, and including relevant keywords here will make both the individual image and the site as a whole easier to find.

Proper use of meta tags is important for more than just SEO reasons. It’s generally agreed to be a core part of web design best practices, since it also improves the accessibility of your site and makes sure its appearance is consistent across a wide range of browsers and devices — which is a particularly important consideration in the age of cellphones and tablets.

Tracking interest by region may be useful for localization purposes.

A time and a place

Now that we know how to apply SEO, the next question is “when?” What factors, as a translator, should you consider in order to make that decision? First of all, and most obviously, this only applies to web-based content. You’ll get the best results when applying SEO techniques to an entire website, of course, but even making an effort to properly tag and edit something such as an individual blog article can make a small difference. On the other hand, it isn’t worth going to the effort of researching frequently-searched keywords and adapting the text accordingly for a printed product brochure — unless, perhaps, you know for sure that the same content will eventually be reused online. If in doubt about how the document will be used, check with the client.

Speaking of the client, you’ll naturally only want to add SEO services to a translation job with their informed consent. Depending on how much work is involved, the project could start to look a lot more like transcreation than ordinary translation, so you’ll want to budget accordingly and make sure the client understands that sometimes localization is about conveying more than the pure, unaltered meaning of the source text. Explain what SEO is and how you’re going to provide it, and work closely with them to make sure that what you’re doing meets their expectations. This advice comes from personal experience: we had a client who did a back translation (using a machine translation tool, no less) of an SEO-optimized translation and complained that the translation had too many differences from the source text.

Last but not least, you should only provide SEO services if you’re confident that you know what you’re doing. This is a professional service, just like translation, and if you do a bad job then there could be consequences. Of course, you should hold yourself to strict ethical standards. Don’t fill a file with irrelevant metadata, and don’t offer to build a network of fake links in an attempt to fool the spiders into overvaluing a site’s value on the rest of the web.

All of these are, in fact, the same sort of criteria that most translators already apply when deciding whether or not to take on a given translation project. Am I properly qualified for this job? Do I have the time and resources to do it properly? Does the client understand exactly what’s involved? Do I understand what’s involved? Given all the potential for overlap between translation and SEO, freelance translators are ideally placed to provide SEO services as an add-on to their regular work. If you’re looking to add another string to your bow, why not give it a shot?