Global Digital Marketing & Localization Certification

This is the final paper presented by Ossama Nabil, a recent graduate of the Global Digital Marketing and Localization Certification (GDMLC) program. This paper presents the work being produced by students of The Localization Institute’s Global Digital Marketing and Localization Certificate program. The contents of this Paper are presented to create discussion in the global marketing industry on this topic; the contents of this paper are not to be considered an adopted standard of any kind. This does not represent the official position of Brand2Global Conference, The Localization Institute, or the author’s organization.


There is a huge potential to harness the power of search engine optimization (SEO) and transcreated content for the Arabic market. Internet penetration in the Middle East averaged 52% on 30 November 2015, surpassing the world average of 46.4%. This growth brings online a young dynamic audience whose language remains pretty much underutilized. This growing audience does not just have the bandwidth and remarkable purchase power, it also has a thirst to consume quality content slated to engage them in their own language.

Arabic is already one of the fastest-growing languages on the internet, having grown twenty-fold between 2000 and 2009. It is also an official language in 26 countries. However, more research is needed to apply learnings from the digital marketing revolution to this language. Arabic content in e-commerce and on-line media still lags behind due mainly to persistent efforts to merely translate foreign content, without truly adapting it to the local markets.

As the majority of websites aimed at Arabic markets remain mostly in English or French, there is a huge opportunity to delve into such sectors as travel, online retail consumer markets, cellular services etc. if web content is properly localized with optimized Arabic SEO. This commentary bids to explore best practices for Arabic.

Review of the Challenges of doing Culturally Customizing Digital Content in the Middle East

Despite the availability of digital marketing know-how, quite a few companies willing to step into the Middle East market get it wrong. They might use a local translation vendor to simply have their content translated, including keywords. Relying on translated keywords alone means the company is unaware of the local search techniques by Arabic-speaking audiences.

Translated keywords were seen to miss what clients actually want. An example of this would be the increasing travel business in the MENA region. As most English/French websites would use “hospitality” as their main keyword. Translated into Arabic, ضيافة (playing generous host to one’s guests), is a far too elegant word compared to what local clients might be actually using. The result is that travel website/blogs fail to channel traffic to them, thereby wasting expensive investment in their creation, authoring and surface translation.

Another issue is that a rising number of local vendors, mostly claiming to offer SEO research services, use downright black hat SEO techniques. Keyword stuffing, among other violations, seem to provide international or local clients with sites loaded with keywords, but are actually penalized by search engines. In the absence of awareness of these penalties, local vendors continue to cash in on false SEO techniques, while businesses remain unable to reach out to bewildered local clients.

Frustrated, local audiences on the other hand might try unusual search techniques. Some surveys discovered that Arab web surfers are sometimes willing to translate their search terms into English/French via Google Translate, check the results and then have the hits on the search result pages translated back to Arabic. This practice indicates that Arab users believe possible digital content in Arabic is most probably (poorly) translated itself, so, it is wise to trace it back to its source in order to access quality results.

To provide quality digital content for MENA, it is still important for international businesses to use local vendors for localisation, while maintaining a channel for educating them on their expectations.

As for content creation, transcreation should be the new black in digital marketing for Arabic. International companies are advised to check that local vendors fully comprehend the brand message by providing them with comprehensive brand documentation and samples from the work done for other languages, while asking them to survey the market to provide local insights on how the brand should be handled.

It might be wise to ask localisation vendors to provide creatively translated content as opposed to direct translation. Localisation vendors (LVs) should be asked to provide alternatives for key taglines for marketing campaign supported with faithful back-translations and comments on why the vendor believes the transcreated tagline delivers the message. Businesses’ HQ offices can use the help of in-country reviewers or local agents to check the validity of LV choices.

To render content SEO-friendly, local vendors should be encouraged to research Arabic keywords rather than directly translate them. The challenge of having a myriad of local dialects in the MENA region and the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia (the presence of a high version of Arabic known as Modern Standard Arabic along multiple local vernaculars) can be addressed by providing locally researched content for sub-regions, these being Egyptian, Maghrebi, Levantine, Khaleeji, and Mesopotamian Arabic.

For example, to localize content for “hospitality”, a basic organic Google search could easily help find synonyms that are in actual use, e.g. فنادق (hotels), إقامة فندقية (hotel accommodation), حجز فنادق (hotel booking), حجوزات (reservations). Google Trends can then help find which alternatives are preferred by actual web surfers, which, in this case, reveals that hospitality clients in MENA do seem to look for فنادق (hotels) as a primary keyword rather than the directly translated keyword ضيافة.

Applying this technique to the sub-regional level can render more localized results. For example, real estate clients looking for homes to sell or to rent can be looking actually for either بيوت (homes), شقق (apartments), منازل (houses) or عقارات‎ (properties) as suggested by organic searches and Google Insights. To pinpoint the primary keyword for each locale, Google Adwords may be used to avail of its search parameters. Under “Advanced”, the parameter for Location can be set for the countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman combined, which make up the Khaleeji countries. “Language” can be set to: Arabic, and Match Types should be: Broad & Exact. This query can reveal that شقق (apartments) is the main keyword for Khaleeji clients. Changing the Location to Egypt would reveal that clients there look actually for عقارات ([real estate] properties).

In order to address the issue of local users’ uncertainty about results in Arabic, it is advised to expect them to use long tail keywords, e.g. شقق للعوائل في الشرقية (apartments for families in the [Eastern] region). It is therefore suggested to adapt a Long Tail keyword strategy, by factoring in longer, yet less frequent Long Tail keywords, along with the top shorter primary keywords.

To create a culturally-adapted web site(s) for the MENA region, I would recommend following the below configurations based on best practices:

  • Collectivism: MENA region adopts a predominantly collectivist culture. Insurance, financial institutions, education, travel etc. businesses in the Gulf tend to adapt a family theme, with typical photos of local happy families clad in local Khaleeji costumes (e.g. men and boys dressed in dishdasha and agal, while wives and daughters wear abaya and hijab).
  • Masculinity – Femininity: MENA culture is one with strong preference for masculinity. Manufacturers of Japanese house appliances, German carmakers etc. have long enjoyed success depicting their product durability. Businesses in the financial sector, language services (e.g. teaching English) or contracting/construction tend to demonstrate achievement orientation and success. A sense of adventure and fun is visible on travel agency websites.A realism theme is advised with stark colors (black, blue, grey etc.) and well-written content. Vernaculars or informal themes should generally be avoided.
  • High-Low Context: MENA is a high-context culture. It is recommended to implement the themes of harmony and aesthetics to culturally adapt Web sites for the local market.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: MENA region scores high on Uncertainty Avoidance values. Payment upon delivery, money return guarantees, the display of customer service hotline in a prominent place, store locators, having a dedicated support agent to follow up with customers via Facebook pages and Facebook page customer testimonials are the way to go.
  • Power Distance: MENA region features prominently on the power distance list. It is good practice to add elements that emphasize honor and recognition. A company, hospital, educational institution etc. can gain credibility by displaying awards they or their brand has received. The use of honorific or professional titles to refer to founders and managers is highly preferable.
  • Symbols and Icons: The local culture is pronouncedly conservative. Avoid photos of scantily dressed ladies or swimsuits photos even in travel agency websites or blogs. Replace with happy family photos in a hotel room or an airport. Please avoid religious symbols in general, including those of the predominate local religion – Islam.
  • Spatial Orientation: Arabic is proudly a right-to-left language. Avoid Arabic text looking left-aligned. Use the dir=RTL attribute in HTML tags like Div. Use Unicode fonts like Arial/Times New Roman as opposed to funny looking fonts like Tahoma.
  • IDN ccTLDs are available for three Arab countries as of now; Egypt (.مصر), Saudi Arabia (.السعودية) and UAE (.امارات)

Implications for Business Willing to Tap into Local MENA Marketsarabic-mother-and-child-on-computer

There remains much room for improvement in Arabic digital marketing. A paradigm shift is needed to localise more content than just address local audiences in English or French as de facto business languages.

In the effort to engage local audiences in the MENA region more successfully, more transcreation is needed than old-school translation. Comprehensive education on brand message along with proper checks and balances, e.g. back-translation and comments, should be used as well-tried methods to verify that LVs grasp the brand message.

In the conferences and events that I personally attended on how to evaluate transcreated content in terms of quality, it is no surprise there is near consensus that old-school metrics of linguistic error detection and scoring are not sufficient. Rather, it is the impact of content that should count.

Therefore, international companies should orient LVs that their output should be result-oriented. Once all transcreated content is complete and SEO research accomplished, localized websites should demonstrate actual traffic and increase customer engagement rather than just fare well in a translation accuracy test.

SEO Audits should also be conducted on key localized Web pages, Meta-tags, H1 tags etc. to ensure SEO research vendors do not violate search engine rules.


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Author Bio:

Ossama Nabil is the Translation QA Manager at ES Localisation. He is an experienced translator, copy editor and creative author. Excited about the rising trend of merging content creation and localisation, he decided to put to practice modern digital marketing techniques that proved highly effective in English, but fared less successfully so far when applied to Arabic. By making a case for digital marketing in his own language, Ossama hopes his insights could help professionals planning to localise brands in more exotic languages. Ossama works with a wide range of international clients wishing to venture into the MENA markets, helping them create and localise engaging content both online and for publication.

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