Japanese SEO is simpler than in other countries. But there’s still plenty of opportunity to differentiate yourself. We explore how to rise to the top of the rankings.
Good news for digital marketers looking to break into Japan: you don’t need to learn how to use a new search engine.
That’s because Google and Yahoo! Japan are both incredibly popular, serving 70% and 24% of queries respectively. Even better, Yahoo! Japan uses the same search engine algorithm as Google. So although you’ll need to measure traffic from each site, the SEO considerations for both are the same.
That being said, Japanese SEO is not entirely straightforward. Here are some things to consider when you’re optimizing your site for Japan.
Your site structure can have a big impact on your SEO performance. Using a top-level domain name will help you to rank more highly on Japanese search engines – as will hosting your site in Japan.
Inbound links are also important. Content marketing doesn’t yet drive Japanese SEO strategy, which means there are still a huge number of affiliate advertising sites and blogs. Japanese crawlers treat inbound links from these sites differently than in the US and UK. That’s why if you search the same term on google.co.jp and google.com, you’ll get different results. Don’t go overboard with your links though, because Google penalizes sites that have too many.
Fun fact: Japan is one of the most mobile nations in the world. There are more mobile connections than people, largely because the Japanese often carry separate devices for work and home. This hyper-connectivity means that Japan has a long history of creating content for mobile. So to reach your target audience, you’ll have to make sure your website is mobile-ready.
English proficiency is famously low in Japan. In fact, only 8.7% of participants in a Rakuten survey felt confident using the language. If you want your audience to actually engage with what you’re saying, you’ll have to speak in their language. That is, of course, unless you’re using English as a stylistic feature like Starbucks.
It’s best to avoid literal or machine translations when localizing content. Because without a human touch, you could miss the cultural significance of certain symbols. For example, the number four is unlucky as it sounds like “shi” in Japanese, meaning “death”. On the other hand, the koi carp represents strength and good fortune. A simple translation won’t take these nuances into account – and getting them wrong could harm your brand image.
A good localization will also account for Japanese layouts. For example, you should invert contact details as follows:
- [Post Code]
- [Street Address]
- [Family Name] [Given Name].
And you should decide whether you want to use vertical or horizontal typography.
Translating Japanese content also presents other challenges. There are three different character sets in Japanese: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. The use of each character set depends on the situation and audience, which means that there are several ways to say the same thing.
For example, if you’re searching for “sushi” on Google, you can choose from any of the following options: すし, 寿司, 鮨, 鮓, 寿し, スシ or ずし. Each term will rank differently, so you’ll need to carry out extensive keyword research to make sure you’re optimizing for the terms your target audience uses.
Japanese websites often look very different to those in the UK. There’s often a lot more going on, as clean styles are considered “sabishii”, or desolate. Rakuten provides a classic example of this cultural difference:
However, if you’d like your brand to have a tidier vibe, all is not lost. Some brands like Muji have deliberately reacted against the usual busyness with a more simplistic look. Whatever you decide, make sure it fits with the image you’re trying to convey.
Using manga or anime characters can also help your brand to look and feel more Japanese. These characters are incredibly popular and influential in Japan, which means they can be used to boost awareness, generate buzz and promote events. According to a study by Manga Plus, including cartoon material can even improve your website’s performance. They found that after including manga:
- The average visit duration increases by 1 minute 12 seconds
- Bounce rates decrease from 78% to 62%
- Conversion rates increase from 0.36% to 0.87%
Some have argued that anime’s popularity is linked to Shintoism, a Japanese religion with strong links to animism. The cultural legacy of this belief could explain why anime and manga characters are so beloved by Japanese people – and why they can help your brand to resonate with a Japanese audience.
So although Japanese SEO might seem simple on the face of it, you shouldn’t rest on your laurels. Putting in the hard work to properly adapt and optimize your site will work wonders for your brand.
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