Is machine translation a good idea? I was recently flamed by one of my readers because I have been recommending over and over to forget machine translation and concentrate on the real human-translated stuff. His argument was something along the lines that because I am a professional translator I am biased, and it is in my selfish interest to indicate that machine translation of a website is a bad idea, because that undermines my business growth.

After I stopped laughing -I don’t need additional business, I already have more than I can handle, thank you- I realized that this guy was deadly serious. And there are many more like him out there.

The very first problem I had with this guy was that he ONLY speaks English. Foreign languages? None. Zero. Nil. So how do you convince such a guy about the bad quality of machine translation? I initially pointed out to my post about How to be smart and fetid # 1 with machine translation, but that did not work, as he could not verify my claims on how bad my blog had been translated. So I pointed out to my post of one year ago about Machine translation and how well it works. Bingo! After checking it out he grudgingly admitted that there was room for improvement. (Plenty, i would say). But, he added, that does not apply to Google Translate, and in any case, why should one care?

Heh. I already promised a real example of how well Google Translate works. It’s quite useful… to find out what a site is about. NOT to translate a site. If you cannot afford a real translation, allow your users to use Google Translate to find out about your pages, as I pointed out in my post How to use Google Translate on your site. But do NOT use it to translate your web pages!

Why not? First, the quality of the translation is doubtful. Though I will discuss this in more detail in a future post, you can check it for yourself by translating a page in a foreign language into your native language. Check the meaning. Context. Grammar. You will not find obvious spelling mistakes, but I guarantee that any complex text will raise your eyebrows. And why is this important? Because such translation goes against the guidelines provided in the Google Webmaster Central Blog about quality sites. In particular, such bad translation implies a big NO to the following questions raised in that post:

  • Q5: Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Q9: How much quality control is done on content?
  • Q13: Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

A bad translation (and machine translations are usually bad, except for very simple sentences) usually have a significant number of stylistic errors, quality control is nil and the edition seems sloppy at its best because there are often incoherent sentences. So, a machine-translated site is going to be flagged up by Google as a “non-quality” site. After Panda, this will imply a certain penalty in the SERPs. And if the site shares several languages -which is often the case- then this penalty might bring down an otherwise perfectly SEO-friendly site. People have reported significant SERP drops due to a few “bad” pages after the Google Panda algorithm was implemented. So what do you expect when you have ALL pages in a different language being identified as “bad quality”?

But that is not the worst news. If you look at the following video, you will hear that Matt Cutts states towards the end that “Auto-generated stuff also applies to auto-translated text“. Yes, that is correct. If you use machine translation, Google might interpret that as auto-generated text, and your SERPs will be severely punished.

Machine translation WILL provide you access to additional customers, as everybody knows that users are more likely to buy from you if you address them in their own language. It also opens the business to those customers that do not speak the main language of your site. But will those additional customers offset a radical drop in your global search engine ranking? In the vast majority of cases, the answer will be no.

Now, you can believe it or not. But if you are serious about SEO, please listen: Machine Translation = Lousy SEO.

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