The Way Search Works Around The World

by Geoff Hineman

You don't have to look far to find oodles of information about how dominant Google is among search engines.... at least in the U.S. What if you are operating in China, though, as more and more business are? What about Russia? And just what exactly do you know about the 20% of Americans that opt for a search engine besides Google? The reality is that Google is the elephant in the room right here, but that is certainly not the case all across the globe. The way you approach global SEO needs to take into consideration other search engines, as well as cultural differences.

Let's take a closer look at some other search engines and their relevance to major markets around the world. Along the way, we will explore their key differences from an SEO perspective and include some cultural considerations, as well.

Google in Europe

In the U.S., it can be easy to assume that Europe, being part of the Western World, is very much like us. When it comes to search, the differences become obvious very quickly. Let's start with language, for example. Twenty-three. That's the number of official languages in just the European Union. That's not even taking into account the large number of dialects from region to region.

Beyond the language differences, there are also wonderfully diverse cultural differences within the European Union, which certainly play a role in the way each culture interacts in person and online. The time and duration of meals, how late people stay out enjoying nightlife, the importance of punctuality and the role of extended family are just a few examples of cultural differences between the USA and Europeans. Many of the countries within the EU have different social norms for the examples listed above.

For that reason, it would be foolish to assume that all of Europe would interact the same way online and that has great implications for SEO.

All that said, Google is definitely the search engine of choice in Europe. To be sure, it garners about 82% of searches in the U.K. and a whopping 91% in Spain. The approach to SEO in Europe, though, is actually quite different.

In the U.K., there is a rapidly growing understanding of critical importance of SEO from a variety of angles, including content management, UX, and technical health. For much of the rest of Europe, there is a growing sense that SEO is important, but that its true value is still being realized to its potential.

The variety of languages will require Hreflang to be an essential part of global SEO planning, but that is still a very rudimentary step. Just as keyword research is essential to any SEO program, it is critical to carry out that research on a cultural basis. For instance, even though English is commonly spoken in the U.S. and the U.K., words can still have drastically different meanings, for example: bonnet, rubbers, lift, flat, etc. The bottom line is that global SEO is a multi-lingual endeavor. You need to be prepared to get into the nuances of not just the languages but the differences within the same language across different countries and cultures.

Google and Yahoo! in Japan

Yahoo! sees a greater popularity in Japan than Google. Yes, you read that right. In terms of just search use, Google is more popular. So how does that work? In Japan, Yahoo! is a hub of apps that get used a lot. This includes Yahoo Weather, Yahoo Transit, Yahoo Answers, etc. For pure search utility, Google still garners nearly 70% of the share, while Yahoo gets about 22%.

Does this matter to SEO, then? Well, in 2010, Yahoo! started using Google's search algorithm, so in terms of technical SEO work, you can view them the same. That's about where the similarities end, though. Beyond your technical work, you really need to look at the differences in the cultural backdrop of Japan, particularly with regards to app development for things we might normally consider just another extension of search engine functionality. Also, if Japanese users rely so heavily on Yahoo! for its apps and both Yahoo! and Google are running off the same backend algorithm, why are so many still turning to Google for search instead of Yahoo!? What are the cultural difference for those decisions and where does your product offering or service fall in relation to those different audiences?

Speaking of audiences, it maybe worth noting that Japanese users tend to lean toward more content-heavy sites than users in other parts of the world. That might be because they have four—count 'em, four—different styles of writing. This means that a keyword can be written four different ways. So it is absolutely paramount that you work with native Japanese speakers before you delve into that market.

Baidu in China

How many Internet users does China have? If you guessed 773 million, you are correct! And exactly zero of them are using Google. That's because China blocked Google search in 2010. Instead, the primary search engine in China is Baidu, which does a good job of complying with China's online censorship laws.

Whereas Yahoo! Japan and Google share the same backend algorithm, Baidu and Google are quite different.

Let's take a look at the most discernable ways in which Baidu is different from Google.

  • Commonly page elements, such as page titles, H1s, meta data, and canonicals are weighed differently.
  • Meta keywords and meta descriptions are both actually used as ranking factors.
  • Baidu has no qualms about integrating paid ads into organic results, whereas Google makes at least some effort to distinguish the two.
  • Baidu cannot interpret hreflang.
  • Baidu has difficulty functioning with javascript or flash.
  • Baidu prefers simple Mandarin. As such, simple characters are favored versus more complex traditional characters.
  • Because of censorship issues and rigid regulations, having your site hosted in China will help you get past China's international firewall.

Isn't Google Getting Back Into China?

In short, they are trying. Google is eyeing China's huge web surfing audience the way Scrooge McDuck eyes a huge pile of gold coins. Being keenly aware of the censorship issues, Google is planning to launch a censored version of Google to comply with the Chinese regulations. In additional to language and cultural barriers, that international firewall presents another layer of challenges for SEO. Further, even the idea of a "limited" version of Google has given rise to some very legitimate ethical questions. "Google Lite," in order to reach compliance with China's censorship laws, will simply block sites (and even keyword terms) that deal with any of the following:

  • academic studies,
  • differing political opinions,
  • free speech,
  • human rights,
  • news,
  • peaceful protests,
  • religion, and
  • sex.

We aren't just talking about regular organic search, either. This level of censorship will extend to Google Images, suggested search, and even spell check. The financial appeal of such a move is clear to see. Conversely, though, Google's willingness to suppress free search is in direct opposition to its own values and mission, which states, "our mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Google in Australia

Google's largest English-speaking markets are the U.S. and the U.K. As such, they really take the lead with regard to common SEO practices. Still, there are many nations around the world that speak English, but don't show a distinct preference for American English or British English. What then? The largest of those markets is Australia; so let's use that an example.

The technical aspect of SEO will not differ very much at all, because Australians are well versed in the ways in which Google and other search engines work. As mentioned above, as there are differences between the definitions of certain words in American English and British English, there are others in Australia, as well. This, as you would suspect, will influence your keywords research with regards to both organic and paid search.

Before we get to the various meanings of common words, we need to look at spelling. When working in the U.S. or U.K., spelling will remain consistent within each region. In Australia, it's not so cut and dry. In fact, keyword research will often show a combination of spellings used in the U.S. and U.K., though there is a very slight preference for British spellings. When I say slight, I mean it. In fact, it can even vary by demographic. Australians who showed the strongest preference for American spellings are primarily in the 18-24 age group. It's difficult to say for certain why, but the creation and proliferation of pop culture and social media that radiates more from the U.S. would be a good place to start looking. Regardless, depending upon your demographic, a search for "pants" could mean underwear or slacks. So, even though the language is the same, understanding the intent behind the language can become a real dollars and sense issue.

Yandex in Russia

In Russia, Google's nearly 40% share of desktop traffic runs second to Yandex, which has about 67 million users every month. Yandex treats the fundamentals of technical SEO (e.g., high-quality content = good, keyword stuffing = bad) much the same as Google and even Baidu. Yandex, though, certainly has its share of differences from other search engines. For instance, Yandex differs from Google in some very key ways. Let's take a look.

  • Getting pages and sites indexed in Yandex takes considerably longer.
  • Yandex allows a greater character count for page titles.
  • Yandex considers meta keywords as a ranking factor, but more than five can appear spammy.
  • Yandex's algorithms are "limited" compared to Google's. This makes it a little easier to optimize for Yandex, but also leaves the door open to many black hat SEO tactics.

At the top of this section, I mentioned that Google trails Yandex in desktop search. With regards to mobile, however, Yandex trails Google. The reason for this may have little to do with the quality of Google's mobile search function or even the favor of Russian searchers, though. In 2015, Yandex filed an antitrust complaint against Google, which alleged anti-competitive practices, because Google search came pre-installed on Android phones and Android is far and away the leading mobile OS in Russia. The result was a "choice window" that lets users choose their own default search engine for mobile devices. Since that time, Google has steadily been losing ground to Yandex in mobile search, as well.

As with other regions we have covered, language is a key factor in Yandex being the preferred search engine among Russians. It's ability to comprehend Turkic and Slavic languages is quite good. Further, it's ability to read both Latin and Cyrillic characters with seemingly equal aplomb positions it for increased share in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Ukraine, and other Eastern European nations.

In Conclusion

It's all too easy to assume that we all use the Internet, including search, in the same way. If you are considering expanding into global markets, however, you would be wise to put the differences under a microscope. There is a search universe that exists outside of Google. Language and cultural norms influence search behavior in a variety of different ways. This, by necessity, means that strategies and tactics will need to accommodate for all of these variances. The axis around which all of the SEO work spins, however, is user intent... and it always will be. When it comes to expanding into new global markets, set aside a generous amount of time to get familiar with not just the technical aspects of different search engines, but also (and more importantly) the end users in those areas.