Online Exclusive: Writing Search Engine Optimization Copy for the Tower of Babel

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I don't know what year it was or when it was unofficially decided, but somewhere in the not-too-distant past, people just started taking it for granted that in order to direct traffic to your Web site, you'd do best to optimize your Web site for only English language searchers. This is great news for English, American, Canadian and Australian search engine optimization firms.

I understand that there is a German Google and a French Google and a Japanese Google and a Hungarian Google and a few dozen more Googles representing a few dozen other countries. But I also know that most of these countries require that their students study English in school.

Oh, the French speakers will be sure to tell you about the long list of countries that include French as an "official language," but they don't mention that many of those countries also include English as an official language. French is pretty. French is nice. I wish I could speak French. But I don't have to, since most French speakers speak English already. Even the most stubborn of Francophiles will generally put an English version of their Web site up for the lazy American -- though they will usually use the Union Jack to link us to it.

When people in America find out I lived in Germany for three years, they almost always ask, "So, did you learn to speak German?" I respond with something like, "You mean Deutsche? No, sadly, I didn't learn very much at all, except for 'Ein bier, bitte,' and a few other necessary requests and pleasantries." The problem was that most Germans I knew spoke very fine English. The communication gap had been closed.

Call me a lazy American, but I didn't need to trouble these people with my butchering of their language if they were already so fluent in English. So while I lived in Germany, I did what every forward-thinking American would do: I studied Spanish.

Let's face it: English is the main language on the Internet. The following was found on the personal Web site of a Danish gentleman, who did not respond when I asked for his permission to use this quote from his site. I hope he is still in good health.

The language on www is mostly English. We Danes have lots of trouble with this, because we have some special characters, which do not suit the ASCII well.

But English is very familiar to us. In Denmark is it very common that music groups use English. The children use a lot of English words -- "go, shut up, come on, stop it, yes, no," and words my son tells me not to use on this site! -- It is endless.

Now of course the ENTIRE world is not fluent in English, and if you really expect to reach the whole world with your products or services, you should perform the ultimate search engine optimization of your Web site by having it translated into Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese and other languages, while also researching and using keywords in those languages.

But many of the world's Internet users know: if you want to find something, search for it in English. And here's where we run into trouble.

I just finished writing some content for a client that sells scooters and ATVs online. They sell a fine product at a fair price, and the market for their product is very competitive. The keywords associated with their product were well researched by our specialists in this area, and as usual, they passed the list along to me, as it is one of my jobs to assist our clients in fashioning keyword rich content for their Web sites.

Now before we get into writing copy for English-as-a-second-language Internet users, let's face some ugly truths about the ways many of us are writing search engine optimization copy aimed at native English speakers. You'll often recognize when a Web site is loaded with keywords because the copy reads strangely. For example, let's use the keyword "scooter." You might find something like the following on a scooter Web site:

Scooter riding and scooter ownership are fast becoming a great way to get around today's traffic-clogged, nearly scooter-free streets. With scooters from Big Dave's Scooter Emporium, you can scooter till the cows come home. You can scooter in your pajamas, scooter in your tuxedo, scooter, scooter, scooter, scooter, scooter -- and scooter.

· Scooter in the morning

· Scooter in the noonday

· Scooter when the sun goes down

Scooter rhymes with cooter, and a scooter is almost (well, not really) as fun. When you're ready for a scooter, a great scooter, a real cool scooter, you need to scooter on down to Big Dave's Scooter Emporium to buy yourself a scooter. Heck, buy two scooters, because our scooters are really inexpensive scooters. I didn't say cheap scooters, I said inexpensive scooters. Buy a scooter now. Contact us for more scooter information on cheap scooters, inexpensive scooters and free scooters. OK, not free. That was a joke. Who has free scooters? Have you ever heard of a free scooter? Of course not. No one has free scooters. Buy a cheap scooter at Big Dave's Scooter Emporium or buy a cheap scooter right here, right now! Yes, we're talking online scooters!

And now, an ode to scooters:

Oh, Scooter.

Scooter- scooter- scooter- scooter

You make my heart race, scooter baby.

Your scooteriffic curves and your plump little scooter tires.

The scooter chrome of your scooter handlebars makes me want to ride you, scooter.

Scooter. Oh, scooter.

Buy me a scooter today.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating. If you ran across that copy on a scooter Web site, you'd likely back out quickly, but you get the point. Keyword loaded copy often doesn't read very well. There's something forced and unnatural about the repetition of the keyword. There's something very stupid about it, too. You're insulting searchers who can smell your search engine optimization. And they think it stinks.

And it gets worse when we include keyword phrases that are actually being searched by people who are taking pains to learn English. Phrases like "gas online scooter," and other unnatural phrases that make little sense for everyday English speakers. Of course, we can always break up a phrase with a period, a comma or with bullet points to hopefully disguise its awkwardness, perhaps taking the phrase "gas online scooter" and turning it into "These scooters are powered by gas. Online scooter purchasing has never been easier." A search of the phrase "gas online scooter" in quotation marks will yield a couple dozen results, many of them from China, and if we want Chinese customers, we have to include the ways that Chinese English speakers are searching, and if they are looking for gas online scooters, we need to direct them to ours.

I have always had a deep respect for anyone who can speak more than one language. As a hotel employee in California many years ago, I worked with many native Mexicans and Filipinos who spoke far better English than I did Spanish or Tagalog. It was humbling to speak with a poorly educated hotel maid or dishwasher who could master two languages while I was barely proficient in my own. And now, Chinese Internet users are much better versed in English than I am in Chinese, and if they want gas online scooters, I'm going to help them find them.

With English becoming the dominant language of Internet commerce, we're going to notice a slow evolution in the way we write our search engine optimization copy, and it's going to get harder and harder to do. We lazy Americans (I won't implicate the Brits, Canucks or Aussies here) have found that the world is adapting to our ways, making efforts to speak our language while doing business with us online. The least we can give them is what they're looking for. They've learned our language, and now we have to write for them.

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