Not that I can in English either, honestly. But this is something interesting that’s happening: I know all the SEO mumbo-jumbo in my native language, and can talk about that easily: but one thing I noticed is, I’ve got a whole area of knowledge – no matter how small the latter is relative to the field – that I’ve always studied in English: philosophy, psychology, Artificial Intelligence, and that sort of stuff. I’ve been reading exclusively in English for like, what, the last 6/7/8 years, and all I read about these topics I did in this period. I am literally missing words. Or better, I do have the words, but I miss the jargon.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to be called to speak about SEO at the Web Marketing Festival, Italy’s largest event on digital, technology, and such. They probably were not expecting a partly-philosophical speech, but hey that’s what I do – what I like. I think there’s plenty of people better than me at talking case studies and empirical evidence: I like deductive reasoning and asking questions (also, I believe the industry as a whole would benefit from being more challenging of the status quo). But anyway.
It was great, I was introduced by my compatriot Sardinian Filippo, whom I remember being one of the speakers at the very same conference, back in 2006 (maybe? Not sure about the date tbh) when I attended. So it was great to think that I am now even at the same level of wonderful professionals such as him. Boosts my spirit 🙂 I can’t even begin to describe how hard it must be to create and manage a digital agency in the midst of Sardinia, it sure takes courage and talent.
I mention him because he’s Sardu, but actually the whole host of SEOs and marketers around the event is (always has been) absolutely amazing, so kudos to my buddies Angelo, Cosmano, Vito, and Giorgio for managing to build such an amazing platform over the years.
Anyway, I had to rush the final part of my deck because it was taking a bit longer than expected, and in hindsight I reckon it’s because of the language. I’ll consider it next time – but overall, it was great! 😊
I have the honour of sharing the (virtual stage) with the likes of JohnMu, Aleyda, Rand, Lily Ray, Martin Splitt, Fernando Angulo, and a lot of SEO hispanohablantes and not, guest of the SEOday 2020. New item on my bucket list: returning to Buenos Aires for the 2021 event, if it’ll be held “normally’. Damn quarantine.
Here’s the lineup:
My speech will be in English, I didn’t feel confident enough to talk about the stuff I’ll be talking about in Spanish (next year, maybe 🤞). The topic? ‘Someone wrote your perfect product description, 2,500 years ago’. Mystery topic! 🔍
It’ll be at 7pm UK time, 8 in Italy, so please do follow me if you have nothing better to do for dinner 😉 also, registration is free!
I have seen sites with several dozens of hreflang tags per page: hreflang for San Marino and for Jersey (I’m not even kidding), for English speakers in France and Indians in China. All the most bizarre combinations you can imagine, all derived from the same misconception: that talking to the whole world is as easy as implementing a tag. Well, unfortunately it’s not.
With this I don’t want to downplay the importance of getting your tech basics right, and yes I’m aware that the big G recommends implementing hreflang no matter what. BTW, there’s a comprehensive article on Tech International SEO by my man Ben Howe here.
How different is a different culture
It is easy to underestimate the difference between two peoples.
I am an Italian who lives and works in the UK-two cultures that, after all, share thousands of years of close relationships, and whose languages are partly similar. I am lucky enough to have worked for many international top-level brands in both countries, and I specialise in sorting their approach to International SEO.
Now that I live in the UK I am painfully aware that, in spite of my frankly excellent language skills, before living here I did not have a grasp on the culture that I could consider good enough to be able to autonomously fully manage a .co.uk site. Of course, I was ever careful to err on the side of caution and involve a local specialist or team for all the countries I was targeting, from South Korea to Venezuela, thanks to the great people with which I try to surround myself. Nevertheless, I thought I knew more than I actually did about Britannia, as is the case more often than not (Dunning–Kruger effect anyone?).
It is not only a matter of being familiar with the audience: the industry one operates in is different, with different experts and tools and strong players; and the overall online environment is different, with other search engines and apps and social and a whole different approach to browsing in general.
I will go through some of these differences, providing direct experience of how, even if you are a multibillion worldwide company, it is extremely easy to screw up the internationalisation of your online presence.
I like to split this topic into three main fields, to consider when accounting for the differences between your country, and another: industry, audience, and environment. I will begin by analysing these, and will thereafter offer a few tips on how to tackle your landing on a foreign market.
Whatever industry you are in, and no matter how well you know it in your country, your target foreign market will be uncharted territory. You will need a local guide, at the very least to set up the whole project initially. In the best case scenario, you’ll have ongoing collaboration with local agencies, as well as a local branch to account for all brand and product decisions.
In Italy, all telco providers (Vodafone, TalkTalk, etc.) are way cheaper than in the UK. When Iliad opened their lines in Italy in 2018, the adv campaign was huge, they worked very well on online buzz and, of course, on their price. In order to keep them from owning the market, the three pre-existing players (Vodafone, TIM, Wind Tre) were forced to either sensibly decrease their prices, or even launch entirely new products whose objective was to be perceived as low-priced by the general public. Iliad had studied the market, and managed to cause great disruption to the three monoliths that were sharing the pie until then: one can only imagine the budget in terms of money (Wikipedia mentions €1 billion), competences, and time that such an operation entails, absolutely massive. It was the only way to do it.
I worked with some amazing teams with telcos in both Italy and UK, and the absolutely gigantic dimensions of these companies made it quite hard for me as a third party, but even more for their internal team, to really be able to change things swiftly: among other things, this was due to the heart of the company being several layers away from the digital marketing team, and in one case in another country altogether. In this case, it was simply impossible to drive any sort of change on the site. Eventually the company centralised all of their marketing efforts to their central office, making it even harder: there was, then, a UK-based marketing team with a UK-based agency, trying to optimise for Italy without any local agencies or consultants: not the greatest idea.
I guess what is the greatest idea for multi billion worldwide companies, is to have local staff and local agencies.
I will also mention the SEO agencies world, so as to be able to name people 🙂
In Italy, one of my previous workplaces Webranking is among the 3 top-of-mind in the country when it comes to SEO. Here in the UK, they are utterly unknown, or even worse mistaken for these (great) guys.
My current CEO at Blue Array, Simon Schnieders, is quite the authority in the SEO industry here in the UK, but not so much in Italy. The agency itself, instead, is quite present in the Bella Vita SEO buzz, but unknown to business owners. Maybe, purely from a business perspective, vice versa would be better.
I have this theory for which the single most important ranking factor that really matters is branding. You build your brand, you build your ranking. From an audience perspective, don’t you tend to click on a result from a site whose name you already know? Well, now consider all the subconscious influence a brand has, on top of that of which you are aware.
Most of a site’s organic traffic gets there via brand queries. Dolce & Gabbana is of course an institution in Italy: we know who they are, how they talk, and they are frankly too Italian to scandalise us. But they are just a brand among many others in China, so when they said something about that country that was OK for them, but was heavily offensive for Chinese people, they paid severe repercussions. As in, losing millions and millions in revenues.
We have been working for years with one of the largest online photo printing providers in the UK. Probably the largest, and pretty well known in other countries too! But in Italy, well…in Italy we do not use cards (to this day, Cards Galore is an incomprehensible mystery to me). We do not print our little kids’ faces on mugs and give them to their grandparents for Christmas.
All in all, the culture you are talking to is a filter through which you are evaluated, and it’s something you should consider. Europeans prefer a black/white website, whereas colours are more appreciated in Asia. Chinese people might find a red background intriguing, whereas for us Italians it’s a colour that triggers negative feelings. Same goes with any flashy colour really.
What I mean is, psychology is an important part of what people do online, as most decisions are made irrationally; the process of optimisation of the website should consider this.
Even in a country in which a brand knows their audience, and supposing they have a good understanding of the industry and all the players they are going to deal with, the online environment itself, in which they’ll dwell, will be alien.
I am often asked how to approach traffic generation in China: a lot of people know that Google is not present on the Search Market there (yet), so how does Baidu’s Search Engine work? The question is correct, but partial. It is important to understand, for instance, that the portion of paid real estate for branded queries on Baidu is much bigger than on G. It’s not only a matter of quantity, but also of quality of the information available in the above-the-fold portion of the results page. And how about Wechat? Wechat is not a mere correspondent of our Whatsapp: the Chinese use it for a lot of purposes, among which a strong part of their relationship with a brand. So when you want to land in China, you do not have the option to neglect Social Media. You want social media. You can live without a Twitter channel in Europe, but you want Wechat in China.
How much are apps used by the average person? Do they actually buy online, or is browsing more of a step of a complex off-/online multichannel path, as is normally the case (making things incredibly hard)? What is the natural channel in the moment of information acquisition for most people?
How to hit a foreign market with a hammer
So how do you actively tackle all this? The stakes are high, and so are the price to be paid and the time it will take: no hard questions can ever be answered with easy answers.
Business solutions: go big or go home
First of all, SEO is like an extremely important part of a complex mechanism: let’s say the driving wheel of a car. It’s good to have a perfect, functional driving wheel. Actually, it’s absolutely imperative.
But you won’t go far at all without the rest of the car.
What I mean is that the effort should be a well-organised concerto where all parts work simultaneously: development might be global, but content should definitely be local; organic and paid traffic should be local from a strategic point of view, and the copywriting process should most definitely involve local actors. It is important to notice that having a native in your back office write all texts for you is not a sufficient solution: most Italians do not know how to write in our language, have no idea of the concept of Tone of Voice, and more often than not will incur in first-grade grammatical errors. Bad ones.
As a consultant, it is part of my job to point out when I believe my client is wrong. Upon the proposal of any new web project I always ask, are you doing it just to try your luck, or do you really want to do it? Do you have the budget to back it up? The patience? The time? How about the stakeholders? If you don’t, then you should not even try, because uncertainty will lead to failure.
Do, or do not: there is no try.
From the standpoint of organic traffic, two are the things you’ll need, generally speaking: localisation, which is what we might call all that bunch of stuff I just spoke about; and technical accessibility. That is making it easy and fast for the user and the crawler alike to find, access, understand, and index your information. On the site itself, this is done via a solid foundation that can follow what you do on your own local version of the website. Besides using a CDN, all other on-page technical specifications should already be on your site (if you are not optimising your site in your own country, you most definitely should not do it elsewhere). Use all of the recommendations from the article I linked above. I also talk about it in a module of the Blue Array Academy, and there’s no way I can convey all that information in a few lines here. Also, keep in mind that not all search engines are as smart as the big G: if your site is accessible for G, it might not be for Baidu. In fact, it probably won’t. But after reading all this, you are going to have a specific, localised site for China right? Right!?
My whole point is, do remember that there’s a lot of things to do when localising a website, and you should not believe, nor as a consultant lead your clients to believe, that implementing a hreflang tag will make your brand international.
I am not the kind of person to try and proselytise others, but I have to confirm what many say, that leaving public social media – as opposed to private social media e.g. Whatsapp or Telegram – made me happier, gave me a lot of time to do more useful stuff, and made me generally less angry, thus I cannot but recommend it.
But this is not a story on how I’m better than you because I don’t have Facebook. This is a story about what I call bubble bias, and better scholars than me call Filter bubble.
Let’s start from the beginning: who we are is heavily determined by the situation we grew in. If I was born a couple hundred miles more to the South, I’d not be Italian; I’d not be European; I’d speak another language; my family’d not be Catholic. My whole system of beliefs would be different: religion, politics, what I love in people surrounding me, what I despise of people I don’t like…everything.
Besides proving the deeply loaded argument that all knowledge might be inherently biased, at a lower level one can deduct it as the cause of some issues when it comes to the web, which is our field of interest here. All that we see around us, both off- and online, is served to us based on things that we already like. You know when they say ‘get out of your confort zone’? This is why. If you don’t, you’ll always listen, talk to, and be surrounded by voices that agree with you: this will lead you to the false belief that everyone agrees with you, thus you must be right.
Confirmation bias, and algorithms
We are bombarded by information. Every second, the stream of it to which we have access is absurdly big: that’s also why our attention span is decreasing with time, as we don’t have the time to process each datum that our senses throw at our brain. Among all of this information, we are selective: we must be.
But there’s another level of selection that most people (the general public) is generally not aware of: the means we use to feed our brains (Google, Facebook, Twitter, most modern online newspapers, etc.) operate an active selection of what info should reach us. Their algorithms work like this: Enrico liked/clicked on/dwelled on X, thus I will provide him with as many things I can find that are similar to X. The better the algorithm (and their quality is nowadays based on how good their AI is), the better the results that will be tossed at us. The better the results, the more money they make, based on their monetisation model.
So algorithms decide what we see, and we decide what the algorithm should show us; in a recursive pattern, we will see the same info, the same sources, more of the connections that share their views with us, and so on. This creates a bubble around us. We are biased, everyone around us seemingly agreeing with what we already believe.
Needless to say, this is a big problem with modern society. I blame it on the lack of political intervention on the web, which’s been left largely lawless for thirty years now. It’s not up to the citizen, nor to private companies, to limit functions or impose regulations. So, back to my fake Facebook account.
It’s over 10 years old, I set it up in the context of buying links for SEO purposes. So my avatar has had a 10 years long life. During this period, purely for fun, I gave to…him? it? mmm…I got in touch with people I’d never get in touch with, followed a football team that I don’t support, liked movies and series I know nothing about, and so on. I needed my person to look real, have friends and interests. In order to do so, I thought it’d be easier to get into the populist world. I follow populist politicians and local authorities of the place where my guy ‘lives’; I ‘go to’ events at the most popular clubs in the area, follow DJs and other relevant stuff. I am as much a bland sheep as I can think of. So basically my guy is a superficial jerk.
And I noticed something: after ten years following Salvini, all of your feed will be univocal; FB will propose people in the ‘people you might know’ section, who are all like that. Only, for them it’s real. They invite him to groups and pages, always of the same kind. They comment each other, making a lot of noise with dozens of comments per day. They fund civil movements of hatred, racism, and populism. They befriend accounts of clearly fake horny pornstars who want to have sex with them. They comment on their pics, drooling. It’s just a few people, I don’t spend too much time on my guy to expand his network, but they are clearly very connected with each other. They confirm each other’s ideas as a dog chasing its tail.
It’s mesmerising: I have this secret perversion when I’m bored, to log my avatar and see the madness that surrounds him. At first, I couldn’t believe what people would post: if it was my own old FB account, I’d never be reached by that! People who truly believe that the pandemic is caused by Obama; people who propose that Italy should split in 6 macroregions, joined in a confederation; flatearthers (remember the one final argument against the Flat Earth Theory: if the Earth was flat, cats would’ve pushed everything off it already. Checkmate!). I’d have no exposure at all, if it wasn’t for my avatar.
My perversion is being able to escape my bubble: not only does it makes me feel good about myself (yeah I need confirmation, sue me), on the other it’s interesting to see things that, otherwise, I’d never see.
I’ve lived abroad for 4 years now, between Estonia and the UK. I’ve lived in mainland Italy, outside of my native Sardinia, for 20+ years, more than half of my life.
What I want to write about is as true in Italy towards Sardinians, as it is abroad towards Italians.
I find myself now in a position of strength. For over 10 years I’ve worked with great companies, did my job for some of the largest brands you can think of, and elbow to elbow with top-class managers and SEOs. I co-wrote a book, and taught at a University. It’s a job that I bloody love. I mean it’s easy for me, on the job place, to be respected – regardless of how well deserved this may be.
I will never be able to achieve the status I had back in Italy, here in the UK. I don’t have the same fluidity of language, I have an accent, and my name sounds weird. English people are amazingly openminded re: this, don’t get me wrong. In Italy we’d do way worse. One of the many reasons why I love them. But still, I know that I have to live with the fact that I am the Italian guy.
So what I did about this, I chose to embrace it. I make ‘hand gesturing’ jokes at all events or client pitches. I insert Italian jokes in my slides. I often reference my heritage.
It makes sense right? I’ve always felt this was the wise approach. Until now. People around me are talking about racism, sexism, bullism, gender-related abuses of all sorts. And it got me thinking.
People making fun of my accent, will still respect me when it comes to my job because I’m an amazing web marketer. People saying Italians are untrustworthy will come to love me, because I have studied at length what soft skills it takes to be in my position. People calling Italians lazy, will see that I’m hardworking as anyone, because I work on projects and with people that I love. But is this true for all Italians abroad?
Of course not. An 18 y.o. comes here to follow their dreams, entitled to dreaming as anyone. People will tease them for not knowing the language, and they’ll have no answer to that. People will not hire them, because they don’t have the same level of seniority that I have, and a weird surname. People will call them lazy, and they’ll just have to accept it. People will emulate their accent to their face, not realising that not being able to communicate wholly is a heavy burden to carry for a human being. How easier is it for me to live here, than for them?
From my position of power, I am enabling this situation. I’m making the world harder for this young person who only wants to work and follow their dream. I’m not even aware of it, but I’m perpetuating stereotypes. Stereotypes against Italians are relatively safe, non violent (although it did happen to me, too, years ago…). But they get the ball rolling: if you are entitled to discriminate a European white bloke, why shouldn’t you discriminate black people too? And Indians? And Muslims? And gays? And women? Every time I let a stereotype go, I empower all stereotypes. To stop stereotypes that are really dangerous, against all people different from me, we white straight males must be the first to strongly hold our hands up high and stop every instance of discrimination, no matter how innocent it appears.
We must risk to over-do it.
The stronger your position, the more responsible you are. That Spiderman quote is indeed wiser than one would expect: with great power, comes great responsibility. Even better, with any power comes responsibility.
On the other hand, the weaker your position, the more you should be looked after: your weakness derives from society, not from you not being enough as a person. Each and every one of us is an amazing, incredible speck of universe. Let’s just help each other: a good position for someone else does not make one’s position worse: in fact, it makes it better. A juster society. More money and jobs for all. A healthier environment. Safer streets.
A better world.
Let me add: you know when earlier I wrote “People around me are talking about racism, sexism, bullism, gender-related abuses of all sorts. And it got me thinking.”
Well, this is exactly why we MUST speak out loud about injustice. We MUST speak out loud about discrimination. We MUST speak out loud against hatred, bigotism, and ignorance.