Cracking SEO in Asia Pacific

Don Shin headshot

Don Shin

Don Shin is the CEO and founder of 1-StopAsia, a translation agency dedicated to Asian languages. He has a BA in Korean language and literature and extensive experience as a translator and interpreter.

Gergana Toleva

Gergana Toleva is the global marketing manager at 1-StopAsia. She has 12 years of experience in sales prio r to working as a marketing professional. Gergana holds an engineering bachelor’s degree in Automation, Information, and Control Techniques from the University of Food Technologies in Bulgaria.

Gergana Toleva headshot
Gergana Toleva headshot

Gergana Toleva

Gergana Toleva is the global marketing manager at 1-StopAsia. She has 12 years of experience in sales prio r to working as a marketing professional. Gergana holds an engineering bachelor’s degree in Automation, Information, and Control Techniques from the University of Food Technologies in Bulgaria.


hen we started compiling information for this article, the situation around the world was much different than it is now. While most of it is still valid, it’s quite interesting to reflect on how rapidly things have changed, and what shifts the past five months have brought. Yet two facts are quite clear at the moment:

Fact 1: The East is not as far away from the West as we once thought.

Fact 2: Globalization is never going to be the same in terms of travel and the worldwide movement of people.

Generally speaking, a company’s digital presence has never been more important than it is now, and companies with a great online presence will come out on top. Along with that comes the ever-present need to rank on the first pages, be visible, and have an excellent online reputation.

For Asia, and in particular the Asia Pacific Region (APAC), where technologies continue to develop every single minute, digital presence is essential for every business that wants to thrive — even more so with travel down, borders closed, and people constantly online.

Asian languages and the translation industry

While the longterm effects of COVID-19 are still being assessed, the translation industry in Asia seems to be carrying along largely at the same level as before the pandemic. According to our keyword research on Google Trends, about the same number of translation service queries are currently happening in Asian countries as before. There are a number of reasons behind this apparent stability, not all of which are evident at first glance.

Reason #1: A rise in the demand for translation between Asian language pairs — due to their complicated nature, it can be necessary to use English as an intermediary language when translating between Asian languages.

Reason #2: Many companies have offices in Asia and manage their requests from there. This means that most searches, even those originating from Asia, are actually from Asian branches of Western companies.

Reason #3: Interest in doing business between the East and West is at an interesting crossroads, and building a bridge between them will require a complex mix of translation, localization, marketing, and technology.

The hitchhiker’s guide to Asia

For someone who’s approaching the Asian market for the first time, it may seem straight out of 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 that the well-ordered world of the West, along with the option to defer to English, is shaken from its foundations when East and West meet for business. It may sound cliché, but it cannot be overlooked.

The over 76 million Vietnamese speakers alone Indonesian, with around 43 million first-language speakers and 156 million second-language speakers, represents a significant market as well. Imagine a mid-sized Western company approaching these markets, and the possibilities for success if all goes well.

Let’s take a look at a more common major market. Say, for example, 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 our content into Mandarin Chinese. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, of course there is! You need localization as well, for a start. So, ok, we’ve discovered that translation and localization go hand in hand, and we’ve done that, too. What are we missing in the grand scheme?

The fact is, even if you’ve done all of the above, you can still fail due to the lack of a customized digital presence that’s right for the market. In digital, fast-paced economies like China, Japan, and India, this can prove challenging.

Where does SEO fit in?

Google Keywords and Google Trends don’t work well enough to plan a proper SEO strategy and to launch effective search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns in Asia, at least not everywhere. But even in countries like Vietnam, where Google is the major search engine, there are details that have to be considered prior to SEO optimization and launching SEM campaigns. So what can an LSP do about SEO?

It’s possible to treat SEO for any market as a translation, editing, proofreading (TEP) task. But that is not, and will never be, enough — even the most optimized website with perfectly localized language is not sufficient if you’re a leader only in Google, but your audience is using WeChat.

SEO is not the simple translation of researched and properly listed words. Not in the slightest. It may seem like that, but in reality, SEO is a living, breathing entity that you have to maintain on many different levels in order to reach your business goals. It’s the whole picture drawn before the eyes of your audience by your digital presence.

Different things work in different markets, and SEO strategy is no exception. First, you need to know where your customers are. After all, if we want a fish, we go to a fish market, not the mall.

If we look at Chinese search engine popularity dynamics, one reason the number two search engine, Sogou, rose from a 2% market share in February 2019, to a 24% market share in October 2019, is the fact that it integrates content from WeChat and QQ. And for China, this is where users are.

A successful SEO strategy requires you to be a local, sound local, and know where locals are — all while being an outsider. This requires careful planning, analysis, and cultural knowledge. There is no magic pill here, just hard work, solid planning, and precision!

The APAC region is so diverse in countries, cultures, nations, and languages that an “Ultimate Guide” will fail big time. But we can look at top picks by country, nonetheless.

For example, you’ve heard of Baidu, Bing, and Yahoo!, but what about Sogou, Shenma, and 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 takes a step back? And, for that matter, is Google really stepping back?

Simple research on dominant players in the area shows that most countries use Google as a search engine. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to plan an SEO optimization and marketing strategy for any of the Asian countries that use it.

Getting over the Great Firewall of China

The Chinese market is huge. Data for the Chinese search engine market varies based on what statistics are used, but trends tend to stay the same. About 70% of the search engine market share in China belongs to Baidu, and Sogou is picking up speed. The search engine Shenma, which does mobile search only and holds a remarkable (for a mobile-only search engine) 4.5% market share, rounds off the top three. We’ve listed our picks, and how to navigate them below:

1. Baidu (the largest on the market). Baidu thinks differently, and so do users in the Chinese market. Fast-loading websites are prioritized by Baidu. It focuses on mainland China, so consider using a .cn domain. Anything “Google” will cause a delay of 40 – 90 seconds.

Keep in mind that Money Plant (绿萝) polices hyperlink cheaters. It searches for hyperlink cheaters and websites that rely heavily on building backlinks, so these can lose their positions. This of course has its exceptions. Pomegranate (石榴) is another algorithm that aims to penalize multiple and overwhelming advertisements done on Chinese websites.

2. Sogou is a strategic investment by Tencent. Tencent is one of the largest internet companies in the world, and Sogou is quickly becoming the second largest search engine in China. Its main advantage is integrating content from WeChat and QQ — two highly popular media networks whose content is not available on Baidu. Sogou 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.” It’s highly flexible when it comes to personalization, which appeals greatly to Millennials.

3. Shenma is mobile only, but ranks third in market share for search engines in China. Shenma states they are an exclusive mix between a search engine and app store. If you’re a brand that wants maximum reach, imagine how many users 4.5% represents in a country like China.

Rising like the sun in Japan

Yahoo! Japan is no longer the number one search engine in the country. The Japanese version of Google now holds between 73% and 77% of the market per data from May 2020 taken from various resources (StatCounter and Bing ranks third with between 4% and 6% of market share per May 2020 statistics.

1. Google in Japan. Keywords in Japanese are a crucial milestone in your website’s SEO strategy because there are so many ways to say or write a single word. As high-quality content is extremely important for the Japanese, use locals to create it. The language is so complicated for translation and everything needs to be flawless; otherwise, it will drive Japanese customers away from your brand.

Remember, clean and Zen have 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 online Japanese brand.

2. Yahoo! Japan. Yahoo! presents content to search queries differently — sometimes they add unique content like a hot topic even though it doesn’t have a top position yet. It’s still popular, but not as a search engine anymore. It’s now used more like a web portal for information. Yahoo! Japan has a completely different layout and presentation of information.

To produce quality content for a Japanese audience, opt for local content writers and native speakers. The Japanese are extremely sensitive about their language, and it evolves quickly, so it’s important for your content to be written in an up-to-date Japanese.

3. Bing. Social media is a key factor in Bing, which you should consider when preparing your strategy. Page load time is one of the technical factors Bing uses to rank you ahead of others.

Meta keywords and descriptions are something that actually work, so use them wisely.

South Korea: Web portal or search engine?

Statistics for Korean user preferences on the search engine market vary, but one thing is for sure: you can’t plan a proper SEO strategy without considering the two major players on the market there, Google and Naver.

Korea offers a true and unique challenge when it comes to SEO and winning marketing strategies. It’s more open to the outside world for business, and at the same time it’s still a traditional Asian country.

Gathering statistics and data on search engine shares proved to be quite a difficult task, especially for an outsider. We dug deeper and found three different sets of statistics on the topic, which vary drastically. As a matter of fairness, we will include the numbers from all three source that different statistics measure different variables. However, there is no denying that Google is growing the numbers from all three source and then tease out our real-deal SEO advice for the Korean market.

Following a survey among Korean users, local media stated that Naver has 74%.4 share, Google follows with 13.2%, and Daum is third with 9.6%. says that Naver holds 59% share, Google has 32.73%, and Daum 7.01%. StatCounter shows us the following: Google 76.59%, Naver 17.31%, and Bing 2.43%.

It would probably sound weird if we say they’re not necessarily wrong about South Korea, but the fact is that different statistics measure different variables. However, there is no denying that Google is growing fast. Still, if you want to search like a local and reach the locals, most of the information will be on Naver, not Google. Different market segments can also be found on different search engines.

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

That’s why the one search engine we’ll 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. It doesn’t generate organic results after crawling through the entire internet, which is what Google does. This is why Naver is more of a web portal than a search engine.

Koreans search in a totally different way from English speakers. Keywords are short-tailed due to the fact that the Korean language is more concise. 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. The search term influences the order of the vertical search result, so using the proper search term, and later on the proper keywords, is of great importance to reach your target audience.


Southeast Asia (SEA) is the region in Asia where the language barrier is not as significant as in the previous countries and the use of English as a second language gives better options for market penetration for companies coming from Western countries. However, that doesn’t make the task any easier, due to the fact that the audiences are much different in perception, mentality, and user habits.

We’ve selected a few of the smaller and less familiar markets in the area that have quite a few things to offer 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 home.

A country that opened itself to the internet just over two decades ago, Vietnam is in the Top 20 by the number of internet users. So going digital is a must. Consider it the major rule for successful business there. Over 90% of the search engine market as of May 2020 is held by Google and number two is search engine Cốc Cốc. Consider the local language, go mobile first, and understand that quality content reigns supreme for better ranking.

Malaysia: M is for mobile.

Google is the dominant search engine in the country, and it’s interesting that Malaysian internet users are very well-versed in both English and Malay, the local language. Over 70% of internet users use mobile devices, so the first step is to plan for a mobile-friendly service presentation with an excellent digital presence.

Besides that, the winning strategy in this country is localized content as well as online presence, which is also very important.

Be aware of local specifics, like the fact that rich snippets are something worth optimizing for in Malaysia, because not many websites do that. Having your website in Malay as well as English will cover both language groups in the country and will give you higher exposure to potential users.

Cambodia: The “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 powerhouse with a spot of its own on the world’s digital map. And to be honest, why not?

The country skipped over the years of technical improvements of the more developed 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’s a quickly developing digital environment in the country along with a lack of experienced digital professionals. Along with it comes the local language spoken by Cambodians, Khmer — ភាសាខ្មែរ in the local script.

Over 95% of Cambodians use Google, which has a Khmer version. Facebook use is growing, and a lot of the searches start on Facebook, not Google. So how do we go about conquering this market with an SEO strategy?

1. Optimize for mobile — with so many users of mobile phones, this is essential.

2. Work on your brand and brand message because it’s very important in Cambodia.

3. Localize as much as possible, as Cambodians are highly attached to their culture.

4. Keep in mind that Phnom Penh is not the same as the rest of Cambodia, so do your research on your target audience first.

Chain reactions

We’ve been carefully observing the behavior of users around the world from the front row over the past five months. We clearly saw the chain reaction the pandemic caused, but what we’re seeing now is how countries were closing their borders while at the same time 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 we need to do is find the right audience and get their attention. Online businesses have never seen a stronger push than they’re currently experiencing, and one of the most critical actions they have to take is to improve and increase their online presence. This being said, SEO is one of the most important and accessible places to start.

One recent trend we’ve noticed: in the two Asian countries most affected by COVID-19 (China and South Korea), there is something curious about search engine market shares. Right from the very moment the pandemic started, we started to see an increase in traffic toward traditional in-country search engines. This might mean two things:

1. Companies entering the Chinese market, such as mentioned in our example above, need a strategy update right away, due to the changes noticed in these markets.

2. Countries are closing themselves off due to the pandemic, and users are turning to the most well-known and reliable resources they recognize. It stands out in these countries mainly because Google does not have the main market share and it only confirms the thesis we put forth in the beginning: SEO is not a mere translation of words researched and properly listed in a tool within a given budget.