Web-writing for translators: keywords. Should we be going there?

One of the participants at the Web-Writing Webinar on 11 April asked me how translators should deal with keywords when working on website translations. The question threw me for a minute, but I realised afterwards (as you do) that the answer should have been: “With great caution”.

Selecting keywords is an important part of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) process. As such, I think it’s best left to SEO specialists. Finding appropriate keywords for the translated (or localised) site isn’t just a matter of translating those of the source-language site.

Ideally, the client should engage an SEO company to optimise their site for the target language, region and community, and send their translator the keywords and phrases for seamless — and judicious — incorporation in the translated copy. And ideally the translator should be an integral part of the web team, not an after-the-event add-on.

That’s what would happen in the ideal world. If, however, your client hasn’t had any SEO done, then one option is to identify suitable keywords and search terms using Google Adwords or similar and send them to the client for further research and approval. That way, you’re providing added value but returning responsibility for SEO to the website owner, where it belongs.

Another point to consider is that SEO costs money. If you, as a translator, offer to do keyword research, you should be paid for it. Are you confident enough in your SEO expertise not just to do that research, but to charge appropriately?

Big translation or localisation companies may take a different approach, or  work with their own SEO specialists (do you? please let us know!).

The Yahoo! Style Guide includes a section on keywords and a useful list of keyword research tools. These are useful if you’re trying to optimise your own site but, once again, I’d recommend great caution where clients’ sites are concerned.

I  highly recommend the Yahoo! Style Guide — but if you decide to buy it, please, please, order it from your local “bricks and mortar” bookshop.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

Join the conversation


  1. Hello Marian,

    That question is gaining traction; half of the client requests I receive for Web copywriting or translation work include some reference to SEO/keyword work.
    Whether translators should go down that route is a combination of several factors:
    – Client expectations (and his/her understanding of them!)
    – Duration of project (SEO and keyword work is not a one shot; at minimal, some monitoring and tweaking take place over a few months)
    – Client expectations (redux): are they akin to what clients expect from SEO and Web referencing firms (such as on the 1rst page of Google on X, Y, Z keyword)?
    – Project size: SEO, keyword and Web referencing of a small website is one thing, a huge corporate one is another
    – Translator familiarity or expertise? If the former, I see red flags, unless client needs and expectations have been carefully managed. If the latter, terrific! But then the translator needs to prove it (track record, tools etc.) and bill accordingly.

    I’m a bit of a “geek” and fairly well-versed in these areas. Nevertheless, I will always recommend to clients that I work (upstream) with their experts or offer to team up with a pro to deliver a full-scope proposal. Familiarity with a topic or adequate mastery of a constantly-changing technique are not enough to deliver top results.

    1. Thanks Patricia, for your thoughtful comment.

      I fully agree. SEO is an on-going process that requires very specific expertise. It’s not something to approach lightly. And I agree with you that working with the client’s experts, or teaming up with an SEO professional, is the best approach.

  2. This is a really interesting point, especially for me, as multilingual SEO is something my employer has recently started advertising. There’s so much to be taken into consideration, and I definitely think the best thing is a blended approach, with the translator working with SEO experts.

  3. No doubt SEO, keyword and Web referencing, a very tacky business, should be left to experts. Some translators (very few, I would think) might be up to it, but then teaming up with the client’s specialists in that field will be a must to be able to fulfill expectations.

    1. I don’t think SEO in itself is tacky, it’s just that it can be so badly abused. There are lots of blogs and websites featuring “do-it-yourself” SEO (or marketing, etc) but it’s really a separate area of expertise from translation. So I agree – teaming up with the client’s specialists is the best course to follow. We can’t all be expert at everything, after all.

Leave a comment

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.