Search sans frontiers

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E-commerce currently relies on search – which is why retailers spend so much on paid search and SEO strategies. If you’re not at the top of the Google rankings, goes the thought, you’re nowhere, says Amanda Davie, managing director of digital consultancy Reform.

For the UK that might be true, but it’s folly to assume that the same thinking applies on the other side of the world. If a British brand wants to acquire customers in Singapore, Peru or Kenya it needs to understand that a whole new set of rules has come into play. ’Optimising’ a website means making it easier to find for all customers, no matter where they are.

There are different protocols that apply when targeting other markets outside the UK. For example, if you want your retail site higher in the rankings for French customers, investing in a local server is costly but can improve SEO considerably. Even more valuable is to ensure you have a .fr domain name (rather than something like www.domainname.com/fr, which many brands seem to think is sufficient), because search engines will always look for local sites and local relevance first.

But merely having a local site that’s a foreign-language version of your .co.uk site isn’t enough, and neither is just translating your Google keywords into their counterparts and hoping for the best. Different markets have vastly different search behaviours and retailers need to understand them and plan accordingly.

For one, the UK and US are pretty sophisticated markets for e-commerce – and particularly for search. That means that brands can get away with activities and products here that would be ineffective in other countries. In some parts of southern Europe, for example, there’s no paid search at all and consumers are far less confident about buying online. So there’s no point selling £350 items on your Spanish website if no-one in Spain would dream of spending more than £25 over the internet.

It also means expecting a sophisticated approach to global search from an agency based in one of those markets.

However, by the same token there are other markets – in the Far East – that are years ahead of the UK and US. In Japan and South Korea, for example, mobile search is used far more than desktop search and technology and search behaviour are highly sophisticated. For example, Japanese fashionistas will photograph catwalk models on their phones and then search for those outfits online.

Compare that with the infancy of mobile search in the UK at present, and it becomes clear that even the most advanced European retailers still have a lot to learn.

South Korea also throws up one of the biggest issues when it comes to retailers looking to build a customer base in other countries: the mighty Google. In the US and UK Google is king, and it’s also number one in some markets like India and Brazil, but that is by no means universal.

In China, the search engine market is highly fragmented with no clear winners, while in South Korea Google has less than 10% of market share and the undisputed number one is a site called Naver. For retailers used to focusing all their attention and resource on Google optimisation, this can come as a rude awakening.

As any number of UK retailers know to their cost, opening stores in other countries is a highly risky venture. That’s why so many are choosing to promote their websites as the best way to win customers abroad. After all, the world is flat online. A bricks and mortar retailer is restricted to the customers it can physically reach and get into the store, but e-commerce isn’t even bounded by national borders and oceans.

What they need to remember is that getting it wrong can happen online as well. Retailers have to understand that how people search and buy on the web can be just as ’different’ in other countries as how they go to the shops.

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