Technically, German SEO is pretty straightforward. Linguistically, it can trip you up if you’re not careful. But the reward is worth the risk. Here’s why – and how to get it right.
About to make your brand’s first foray across the Channel? Germany might seem like a natural first step.
It’s easy to see why. It has the largest population and economy in Europe – and it’s the fourth-richest country in the world. The customers are there, with money to spend.
If you’re planning to engage German customers online, the picture’s even prettier. They’re embracing technology in big numbers. In 2018, internet penetration increased by 5% to 96%, meaning five million more people now have access to the web. And they spend over four and a half hours a day online.
Plus, these figures will only keep growing. Fast internet is currently considered a luxury in Germany. However, the government has promised to make it a legal right by 2025, encouraging more people to spend more time online.
Even more good news: Google accounts for 95% of the German search market. Which means you don’t need to understand the intricacies of a new search engine to build brand visibility and engage customers.
Sounds pretty perfect, right?
But of course, there’s a catch. Technically, German SEO may be fairly straightforward. But keyword selection can give you a few headaches. Here’s why – and what to do about it.
SPRECHEN SIE ENGLISCH?
Be honest. Not sure whether to bother localizing your site into German?
At first, glance, it looks unnecessary. Germany has one of the highest English proficiency levels in the world – and it keeps improving. Today, many Germans will easily understand your English site.
But 59% of international consumers never or rarely buy from an English website. Germany is no exception – especially given the recent drive to champion German. Localizing your site gives customers a better UX and keeps you in tune with the zeitgeist.
So, to translate your site or not? Actually, it’s not that simple.In specialized fields, it’s common to see English words in German copy. Take cybersecurity firm Mark Monitor for example:
Here, the English term ‘Domain management’ has been used because an equivalent doesn’t exist in German.
This often happens with technical terminology. In fact, during some recent German keyword research we did for a cybersecurity client, 16% of the top keywords were in English and had no German equivalent.
It’s why international keyword research is so important. Unlike keyword translation, it can tell you whether targeting an English or German term will be more effective. It can also help you get a leg up on the competition. Many companies deprioritize localizing blog content. Keyword research can identify whether this is a missed opportunity your German digital strategy could take advantage of.
SPRECHEN SIE DEUTSCH?
Still not convinced it’s worth localizing your site into German?
Bear in mind it’s an official language in six countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Localizing your site into German could let you engage customers across a huge swathe of Central Europe.
If you only have the money to translate your site into one German variant, choose Hochdeutsch. This is the standard German you’ll have learned in school and is by far the most common. It’s spoken in Germany and understood in the other countries, so it will open you up to the widest audience.
However, if you want to specifically target a second German-speaking country, this approach may not yield the best results. These countries use their own German variants, which can impact your SEO strategy.
For example, the German term ‘Fahrkarte’ means ‘ticket’ and receives 5,400 monthly searches a month. But in Switzerland, there are only 170 monthly searches for this term.
Instead, the Swiss search for the French-inspired ‘Billett’ – also meaning ‘ticket’ – 3,600 times per month.
In this case, the most effective SEO strategy would be to target ‘Fahrkarte’ in Germany and ‘Billett’ in Switzerland.
Here again, international keyword research is key to help you identify the most relevant German content strategy for your brand.
SPRECHEN SIE HOCHDEUTSCH?
What if you’re just targeting Germany and don’t need any English? Well, don’t switch off just yet.
German is an incredibly rich language. Take the word ‘shop’ as an example. Depending on the context, it can be translated as ‘Geschäft’, ‘Laden’, ‘Kaufhaus’ or ‘Werkstatt’. They all have a strong search volume. How can you tell which one is right for you?
Source: Google Keyword Planner
By asking a native, in-market digital expert. They can tell you that even though ‘Kaufhaus’ receives the fewest monthly searches, it’s the most relevant term to target as a department store. And that although ‘Werkstatt’ is the most popular keyword, it’s not the right term for a high-street brand (it means ‘workshop’).
Working with an expert will help you turn data into the insights you need to create a relevant and impactful German SEO strategy.
SPRECHEN SIE GOOGLE?
Working with in-market experts can also debunk some of the outdated ideas out there about the German language and its impact on SEO. Case in point: German compound nouns.
It’s well known that in German you can combine nouns to make really long words. If this is news to you, check out this video. This used to have big implications for your SEO strategy.
In English, you could search for ‘clothes shop’ and Google would show you results for ‘clothes’, ‘shop’ and ‘clothes shop’. The German translation ‘Bekleidungsgeschäft’ would only bring up results for ‘clothes shop’. Because this limited the results Germans would see, they started searching using split phrases. In this instance, they would search for ‘Bekleidungs geschäft.’
Which would leave you with a dilemma. Do you prioritize grammatical accuracy or the most popular keyword? UX or SEO? Many digital marketers would have advised the latter. And still do.
At Wordbank, we’ve always prioritized quality content over keywords. But the truth is the debate’s no longer relevant here. Google’s algorithm has gotten much better at picking out the different parts of German compound nouns. Whether you search ‘Bekleidungsgeschäft’ or ‘Bekleidungs geschäft’, you’ll get almost identical results. So it’s better to opt for the grammatically correct version.
Of course, this causes another headache: how do you fit these long words into meta data when you’ve got limited character space? Don’t worry about it – get an in-market expert to integrate the nouns into the copy.
SPRECHEN SIE UTF-8?
In German, you can place them over three vowels: ä, ö and ü. They change how the vowel sounds, and they can also change the meaning of a word. For example, ‘Losung’ means ‘slogan’ or ‘motto’ but ‘Lösung’ means ‘solution’. ‘Apfel’ means ‘apple’, but ‘Äpfel’ means ‘apples’.
For page copy, title tags and meta descriptions, there’s no issue here. Just add an umlaut when you need one, and don’t when you don’t.
But it’s trickier for URLs. Umlauts aren’t included in the ASCII character set, so to use them you’ll need coding.
There are two workarounds we’d recommend. Think about which one is best for your brand, then use it consistently:
1. Google best practice is to do what’s best for your audience, which in most cases means including the umlaut. You can use UTF-8 encoding to do this. It’ll look something like this: %C3%84 (for Ä). More and more brands are adopting this approach. However, before rolling it out across your site, double-check it’s compatible with any third-party platforms you use, or you’ll cause yourself problems.
2. The simplest solution is to remove the umlaut and add an ‘e’ after the vowel. This turns ‘Lösung’ into ‘Loesung’. Google recognizes this as the same word, so it’ll show up in search results for ‘Lösung’. Be aware that the page rankings are similar but not identical. Provided the rest of your German SEO is up to scratch though, it should make little discernible difference.
Technically, German SEO is straightforward. Linguistically, it’s a minefield. Which German variant should you use? Should you include English? How do you choose the right keyword? The solution to all these questions is to work with a native-speaking in-market digital expert. Or find a global digital marketing agency who can work with the expert for you.
If you’re not sure where to look, get in touch. With our network of 4,000 global resources, we can find the right person for you – not just in Germany, but anywhere in the world.
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