Hopping mad at the dominance of English in Google and other search engines, the French and Germans are funding a Eurocentric search engine. But is language the real issue? By Martin Croft
The French are often mocked by the English for their obsessive desire to defend their heritage against English and American cultural imperialism – ironically, frequently by the same tabloid that ran the famous headline “Hop off, you frogs”.
Remember the opening of EuroDisney in May 1992? One French intellectual (Parisian theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine) referred to it as a “cultural Chernobyl”. Another, Jean Cau of the Académie FranÃ§aise, wrote evocatively in Le Figaro of “this horror of cardboard, plastic, atrocious colours, solidified chewing-gum constructions, and idiotic folk stories that come straight out of cartoon books for fat Americans. It is going to wipe out millions of children… mutilate their imaginations”.
So it was only a matter of time before the French focused their intellectual scorn on the internet, which, after all, has traditionally been dominated by the English language, and on search marketing, which is the fastest-growing part of the internet industry.
Hence the announcement in April that the French and German governments planned to fund the development of a “Eurocentric” search engine, code-named Project Quaero, to rival Google, Yahoo! Search and the new MSN Search.
The announcement was followed in August by French president Jacques Chirac’s statement, in a speech in Reims, that the newly established Agence pour l’innovation industrielle (Agency for Industrial Innovation) would be devoting some of its E2bn (£1.36bn) in funding to the Quaero project.
“Quaero” – Latin for “I am searching” – will be a search engine capable of handling audio, video, text and still images. It is being developed jointly by French computer giant Thomson and German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom.
In his speech, Chirac said: “We’re engaged in a global competition for technological supremacy. In France, in Europe, it’s our power that’s at stake.” He added: “It’s time to go on the offensive.”
Bloggers – English-speaking ones, that is – had enormous fun at Chirac’s expense, with one pointing out that there already was “a very good French search engine – Google.fr”.
That, of course, is another part of the problem as far as the French are concerned: someone who wants to search the internet in French is forced to use a search engine owned by a Californian company.
It’s not just that the French resent paying money to Americans to be allowed to search the Web for results in their own language, it is also a belief that the underlying software, and the structure of the whole search engine, must in some way be Anglo-centric and the associated assumption that if French culture can only be viewed through an American lens, it must inevitably be distorted.
Absolute rubbish, say many experts. Emma Wensley, business development manager of digital agency Sense Internet, says: “The fact is search engines don’t ‘speak’ any language and the nationality of the companies that built them is irrelevant. Search engines look for the group of characters the user has requested. So, if I do a search for ‘chien’, Google does not care that it is French for ‘dog’ – it just looks for the occurrence of those characters together. In fact, only half the results returned are actually French – but if I want to search for the occurrence of these characters in a French language site, I can use the advanced search to do so, and get the results I asked for, ranked by relevance.”
But she admits: “It is true that the Wordtracker (wordtracker.com) reports, charting the most popular search terms used, are full of English terms, but they reflect user-behaviour rather than any preferences on the part of the search engines.”
Optimise from your end
Wensley believes that websites that do not compete well need better search-engine optimisation rather than the search engines needing to be localised. “Localisation is an important issue, but I feel that this problem is being approached from the wrong end – it is up to companies to provide their message in a way their consumers can access.”
Others in the search industry argue that the current dominance of English as the language of the internet is – probably – more of a historical accident and should change over time.
Warren Cowan, chief executive of search marketing agency Greenlight, observes: “Rightly or wrongly, English is the main language used on the Web. Google and the big search engines were mainly started in the US, therefore it is logical that their technology will be tested in English before anything else. It makes sense that products will be available in English before other languages. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be available in other languages in the future.”
If there is a problem, Cowan says it is related to the underlying software that the search engines use to analyse and index information on the Web. He says: “Google’s ranking logic works by analysing how many credible links there are to a site. The more credible links there are, the higher it rates the site. The sheer volume of internet users in the US means that US sites are likely to fare better in the rankings. This may need to be addressed if Google is to remain the prominent search engine in European markets over the long term.”
Matt Walls, head of marketing at Hotels.com, agrees: “English is the lingua franca of the internet at present and therefore dominates search and search marketing. However, this is simply a result of the rapid development of the Web in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. Because internet penetration has developed fastest in the UK and US territories, English language-based e-commerce and portal brands have come to dominate the Web and therefore search.” But adds: “To succeed in the future, international businesses are going to have to adapt local-language websites and implement local-language search marketing to drive traffic to them.”
According to Hotels.com’s experience in the travel sector, people prefer to use sites in their own language, so will tend to search for those sites using their native tongue – although there are a couple of notable exceptions (for instance, the Finns apparently search for international hotels in English rather than Finnish).
A call to ‘think local’
English may have dominated search in the past, but, Walls says: “Because search marketing is such a one-to-one channel, it is also the channel that will to have to adapt first to the rapidly changing demographics of global internet usage. As internet use in continental Europe and Scandinavia continues to rise, international brands investing in these markets will have to ‘think local’ when it comes to language. This will become all the more imperative as internet use in eastern European and Far Eastern markets takes off.”
But there are cultural as well as language factors to take into consideration. “For example, in our market, Russians are interested in totally different destinations to Italians or Americans, so you have to tailor local language searches to local search habits. Getting that right is what will really make or break a global search marketing strategy in my view,” says Walls.
Peter Matthews, managing director of brand experience consultancy Nucleus, thinks Google is getting a bad press from the French. He says: “Google has built a neutral platform that, in itself, does not prejudice any language. The problem seems to be more to do with website owners not optimising their sites in languages other than English and hence emphasising the language imbalance of the Web. As time goes on, I am sure this will self-correct to some degree.”
Matthews pours scorn on the Franco-German plans for Quaero: “French and German authorities should encourage more international engagement and promotion of their languages in global media rather than spending taxpayers’ money on protectionist policies.”
Many in the industry are not convinced that Project Quaero has any real chance of success. As Greenlight’s Cowan says: “It’s unlikely that an entirely new local search effort could replace Google in the short term in Europe.”
But while the language issue is something of a red herring, search engines are going to have to learn to take local feelings into account if they are to successfully launch localised search services, because these require local knowledge.
From global to local
As Cowan says: “There are three key components to local search: search technology, local collaboration on directories and local mapping. Google already has the technology in place, all it requires is the collaboration on directories and local mapping in each market.”
He adds: “To meet the needs of local markets, most big engines need to improve their natural search results in different geographies. However, they’ll only do it when the technology has been tested and the market conditions are right.”
But while localisation is being promoted as something of a holy grail for the search industry, local – perhaps even parochial – interests should never be allowed to obscure the fact that the internet is a global phenomenon, experts say.
As Wensley argues: “The beauty of search engines is that you can view information produced anywhere in the world that is relevant to your query – it would be a shame to lose sight of the benefits of international information-sharing and communication in the panic over French and German companies’ ability to compete in an international market.”