Japanese SEO, Motoko Hunt, Interviewed by Eric Enge

Picture of Motoko Hunt

Motoko Hunt

Since Motoko established in 1998, she has been providing Japanese SEO/SEM services to companies from around the world, helping them to enter the Japanese market using the Internet. Motoko’s search marketing consulting services with her extensive knowledge of Asia and Japanese market have been highly valued and made big impact on some of the world’s popular brands’ search marketing campaign.

She writes about the Japanese online market at her blog at AJPR.com and Multilingual-Search.com. She is a chair of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization) Asia Working Group, and a co-chair of SEMPO Japan.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Can you provide us with an overview of the Japanese market from a search perspective?

Motoko Hunt: Overall, the concept of search marketing is becoming really popular in Japan. Technology wise, the Japanese market is a little bit behind that of the United States and some parts of the Europe. But, it’s widely used by many website and business owners who are aware that search marketing is very effective and a very important part of their marketing projects. I think the biggest difference about the Japanese market is what engines are targeted there.

In the US, Canada and Western Europe, Google is definitely the dominating engine. That is not the case, however, in Asia, especially in Japan. Yahoo is a very important search engine for us when we do the search marketing campaigns. Google has been really growing in market share percentage, especially in the past two or three years, and now it’s almost to the same level as Yahoo. In other words, when we are trying to target the Japanese market, we need to consider Yahoo and Google at the same time.

Eric Enge: So, they are almost the same size now, but Google is probably a little smaller than Yahoo?

Motoko Hunt: Yes, but the good thing about Google is that its engine powers many portals well. Yahoo’s engine is powering Yahoo and some other portals, but Google’s search engine is powering many popular portal sites likegoo, Biglobe and @Nifty. So, if you total up all the outlets, I’d say that it’s probably 50-50.

Eric Enge: Are there any homegrown search products?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. We used to have a couple of really good engines. One was Infoseek and the other one was goo. They both are doing business as very good portal sites, but, like I said earlier, Google powers their engines now. goo still has many great search engines for Dictionary, News, Blog, etc.

Eric Enge: Okay, so do you have a reason to believe that the algorithm that is used by Yahoo or Google in Japan is different than what they do here in the United States?

Motoko Hunt: The engine and the algorithm are set up very similarly, but what’s making the difference between the Japanese engines and those in the States is their language. In Japan they don’t have the space to segment word-for-word.

So, all the engines, not just Google or Yahoo, but MSN and Ask as well, had to pretty much teach their engines how to segment and pick up the keywords correctly, and then put them into the algorithm mix.

Eric Enge: Let’s expand upon that a little bit then. This has to do with the double-byte nature of the Japanese language as opposed to the rather simpler form of the English and European languages.

Motoko Hunt: Yes. When you think of the German language, each word is much longer than in English, because some German words are a combination of two or three English words. Two words, three words, put them together and then create another one big word. It’s like that in Japanese too, except whole words in this case can be one big line without any breaks or periods or commas at all in between them.

Eric Enge: Right. And, it will have multiple words in it.

Motoko Hunt: Exactly.

Eric Enge: So, there is a parsing problem that the engine has then, which is that it has to interpret things and it has to have the sophistication to understand the idiosyncrasies of the language.

Motoko Hunt: Exactly.

Eric Enge: So I could see that that would be a very substantial problem.

Motoko Hunt: Google and Yahoo both have their labs in Tokyo so they can define the engines, especially for specific languages. Also, in Japanese we don’t have just one character. We use four different types of characters and letters and we use all of them at the same time. Unlike Chinese, where issues are found in different spellings and different characters for certain words, and you can take either the simplified, traditional, Mandarin or Cantonese version.

In Japanese we use all those four different characters and letters at once. And then, depending on what you talk about if you are naming foreign countries or foreign names, we have the decision of which letters or characters I should apply. So, that’s another thing that they needed to teach the engines in Japan.

Eric Enge: Well that makes for some pretty complex stuff I would say. Any comments on China and Korea?

Motoko Hunt: Just like in Japanese, they don’t have spaces between the words. So, they have the same issues with identifying the keywords in the tags or the page content. Yahoo and Google are not the most popular engines in China and Korea, so your SEO strategy would be different for that reason, too.

Eric Enge: So, does this all have an impact then on the strategy for an On-page SEO as well?

Motoko Hunt: Definitely. One of the reasons for the Japanese SEO is the fact that we have those four different letters and characters. So, the amount of the time and effort that goes into the keyword study is really quite extensive. In English, there might be one word, but from there we can develop a four-times longer keyword list. And another thing is that the direct translation of an English word might not be the word that people use in Japan at all.

So, it’s the same in any industry, but we need to have people who really know the industry and understand how people are searching particular information to get the right keyword.

Eric Enge: Right. Now, is there a greater tendency for web designers who are not SEO knowledgeable to embed content in images?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. It’s the same problem you probably see in the US. The majority of website developers are not SEO people. They can create a great website with great structure, but it doesn’t mean that it’s search friendly. So, the content or the structure of the templates all have their issues sometimes, and we need to work to optimize them.

Eric Enge: Are there any keyword research tools in Japanese?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. There are a few and they are really good keyword tools for Japanese. As you know, you can log into an account on Yahoo and Google and then they give you some keyword suggestions. We also have a couple of tool companies that are creating good keyword tools. This wasn’t the case up until a few years ago, however.

People really just began running campaigns and realizing that it’s important to do paid campaigns and to optimize their websites. But there really wasn’t a good tool available until recently. People were just using tools or information available from the websites or engines. But, in last couple of years, I’ve seen a couple of good tool companies. So, it’s really good news for the Japanese businesses.

Eric Enge: Yes, absolutely. Excellent, so what about when you get to architecture issues from an SEO perspective? Are there any things that are significantly different?

Motoko Hunt: No, not really. That’s probably why it’s not really much of a problem to take on a multinational company’s website and localize into a lot of other languages, including Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

The only time that we have a problem is when the template has space limitations, like you pointed out that all characters are double-byte. So, depending on a word, we might need a little more or a little less space. That’s usually the only issue that we face when we are localizing the sites.

Eric Enge: Right. Now, the URLs are still based on single-byte characters, is that correct?

Motoko Hunt: You can now use the double-byte URLs and Japanese characters too. You can buy the domains in Japanese characters and you can name your files and directories using Japanese characters as well.

Eric Enge: Very interesting.

Motoko Hunt: Yes. And if those Japanese domain websites come up when you search, that keyword in your URL will be highlighted in both. So, it’s one other good way to catch people’s eyes.

Eric Enge: Well, if you are searching for something in Japan you might have a strong preference for something that feels more Japanese. So, that clearly makes a lot of sense.

Motoko Hunt: Right, exactly. Currently the Japanese TLD is .co.jp. The JP part can be a Japanese character too. The new extension is coming up in 2009.

Eric Enge: So, let’s talk about the differences in mobile search between Japanese SEO and Western SEO.

Motoko Hunt: That’s actually one of the things that Japan varies greatly compared to the other markets. It’s growing in different ways than in the U.S. and Europe. With iPhones now in America, many people started thinking about mobile search, but not many companies are necessarily optimizing their websites for mobile search. In Japan, many companies already have websites designed for PCs and for mobile devices.

They optimize differently, because we are finding that people use different keywords when they search information on a mobile device. So, if you want to do well in the mobile search, you need to optimize your website for different keywords.

There are also browser issues on iPhones, and regular cell phones in Japan don’t take the regular websites well. So, many companies are investing in separate websites designed specifically for mobile devices.

Eric Enge: Right. Do you have a sense of the difference between search volume for regular web searches versus mobile searches?

Motoko Hunt: The search volume on PCs is definitely still larger. But, depending on your target market, your mobile audience might be a lot bigger than your PC audience. For example, if you are after the younger female generation, mobile search is very important to your business. A lot of females in their teens or twenties are doing most of their Internet activities through mobile phones, and they don’t even touch a PC unless they are at work or at school.

And even then, when they are on a PC they are most likely not searching, they are doing work or studying. So, in their free time younger women are searching on their cell phones, not on computers.

Eric Enge: Right. So, not only do you have a smaller keyboard and a smaller screen, but are they still also using double-byte characters?

Motoko Hunt: Yes.

Eric Enge: So, what we already think of as a small screen, it’s even smaller?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. Even smaller screens. So, what they did was really clever. Once you start typing in certain words, it studies and it memorizes your typing patterns and your history. So, when you start typing, they give you suggested searches that you can then scroll down and pick without typing the whole thing in.

Eric Enge: Right. So, it’s auto-complete essentially.

Motoko Hunt: Yes

Eric Enge: That makes a lot of sense. So, let’s talk a little bit about link building. I presume that it’s a very good thing for the Japanese located website to have links from other Japanese websites.

Motoko Hunt: Definitely, yes. The engines’ algorithm is set up in a similar way to the engines in the States. So, link building is very important as a part of the SEO.

The problem right now in Japan is that many people hear that link building is important and they just run out there and then get many links they can get. They really don’t pay attention to who they are linking to or how they are linking to it or anything like that. They are just going after the numbers right now.

Hopefully there are more bloggers and more of these SEO information websites that put out that information about how to do the link building correctly. Hopefully people will learn and then do it the right way.

Eric Enge: So, there is a shortage of understanding of the value of high-value links as opposed to just having as many links as possible?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. Just like in the US, it should be quality over quantity. And, that’s another part of the Japanese market on the SEO side that is probably still a couple of years behind the US market. Just like in the US two or three years ago, people heard that link building is important, and they just went out there and tried to get as many as links as they could. And a similar thing is happening in Japan right now. So, hopefully next year people will learn and do smarter link building.

Eric Enge: Indeed. Let’s talk a little bit about vertical search. I assume that videos and image search do fairly well in Japan?

Motoko Hunt: Yes, it’s huge. I think there may be more Japanese users on YouTube than any other nationality. And then we also have the Japanese service called Nikonikodouga, which is a very popular site too.

Eric Enge: Are there Japanese centric sites that are playing big in vertical search?

Motoko Hunt: Yes. Many Japanese businesses have their official channels within YouTube. But people there are not only after Japanese video and Japanese content, they also enjoy browsing through videos from other countries and in other languages.

They tend to spend much, much longer time on these sites once they get to them than any other nationalities do.

Eric Enge: What about other kinds of vertical search, such as travel and job search?

Motoko Hunt: I don’t know about the job search. People tend to go to straight to job offering website services instead of going through the searches. But travel is big, news is big, shopping is really big and online auctions are big too. So, those are really expanding the market share now.

Blended search has arrived in Japan so that when you search on Yahoo or Google, you can see image and video results come up. I don’t think that’s the case yet in China or Korea, but it’s just started in Japan.

Eric Enge: Thanks Motoko!

Motoko Hunt: Thank you, Eric!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *