Amazingly, many people seem to think that localization and SEO translation are one and the same thing. Well, think again. Though complementary, the difference between localization and SEO translation is not so subtle, as we will see.
Though both are types of translation, their purpose is quite different. A good translator should be able to handle both, of course, but the vast majority of them will -at the most- provide you only with localization.
So what is the difference?
Localization is translating your web pages for a different culture, meaning human beings that live in a different society. A good brand name in one language might be hilarious in another (E.g., an Iranian soap product line is called ‘Barf‘, which actually means ‘snow’ in Farsi, but becomes ‘vomiting’ in English) or outright offensive: The Mitsubishi Pajero has another name (Montero) in Spain, because ‘pajero’ is Spanish slang for ‘wanker’ or ‘tosser‘. But it is not the single example: The Ford ‘Pinto’ means ‘penis’ in Brazilian Portuguese, the Mazda ‘LaPuta’ means ‘the whore’ in Spanish, and the Rolls Royce ‘Mist’ is ‘manure’ or ‘dung’ in German.
Similarly, an excellent marketing slogan in one language might be a total disaster in a different one. One ridiculous example was when American Airlines translated its slogan for first class seats “fly in leather” into Spanish. The literal translation (“vuela en cuero”) means actually “fly naked” (It should be actually in plural, but you get the idea). A good translator will avoid those traps because he will not only know the target language, but also the target culture, and will spot immediately expressions and situations that in the target language will be not so catchy, if not outright offensive or hilarious. Thus, localization is the translation of a text in such a way that readers of the foreign language find it familiar and attractive.
SEO translation is a different beast altogether. The main target here are not human readers but rather search engines. Keywords, expressions, titles, tags, anchor texts, script messages and every single attribute on a web page should be translated so as to make the page attractive for the search engines in the target language. Thus, when someone searches in a foreign language for something that your site offers, your site will pop up in the first positions of all search engines. If you score well in the market for a specific language, a good SEO translation will allow you to score also well in a different one. This opens the door for additional markets, additional customers and obviously additional sales. You may have the best localization in the world, but if the translated page does not appear in the search engine results then your effort is lost – and a good localization is not cheap.
Obviously, the SEO translation is by itself not sufficient – if the localization is bad, your visitors might find your page quickly, but abandon it even quicker. You might perhaps get a boost in visitors willing to have a good laugh if you promote flying naked, but it’s unlikely that you will get many customers. And the ones you get will complain if they cannot fly naked. Overall, it would not be good for business.
So a good website translator should be good at both localization and SEO translation, because you need to combine a good sales pitch to human customers (so as to sell) with the search engine optimization (so as to be found by your potential customers). The balance is a subtle one, and there are not too many translators out there that can handle both aspects. For these reason, quite often webmasters request a translation to a good localization professional, and then search for a SEO specialist in the target language to optimize the translated pages. This is of course very expensive, but it opens a new market that could not be addressed before. And you avoid offering customers to fly naked. Hmmm… but perhaps that is exactly your business model?
A good website translator saves you most of the hassle, as he will be able to combine all these aspects when translating your website. But, as I said, there are not many of those. Luckily there is one close to here ;-).