What you need to know about SEO in Japan
The first ever website was published in 1991 and it wasn’t long before the potential of the World Wide Web became obvious.
Surprisingly early in proceedings, the importance of ranking highly in search results was abundantly clear.
The term search engine optimization (SEO) was first used in 1997. This was before Google had even been founded.
SEO is a complex process but is essentially the practice of getting websites to rank highly in search engine results.
Today there are almost 2 billion websites worldwide. A huge proportion of the global population makes purchases online and uses search engines to source information about products and services.
Visibility online is more important than ever and achieving it can be a major challenge, particularly when tackling overseas markets.
Japan is a particularly difficult market to conquer. If you want to be big in Japan, the right SEO strategy is essential.
Search behaviour in Japan
Wherever you are marketing your products or services, it is crucial to rank highly in online searches. Ranking highly used to mean appearing on page one of Google’s search results. Google has recently introduced continuous scrolling so page one doesn’t really exist anymore, but the benefits of gaining a high ranking remain the same.
Research suggests that Japanese users are less likely than those in the West to scroll down search results. Appearing at the top of the list is more crucial in Japan than elsewhere.
Preferred search engines and social media
Google is now the most used search engine in Japan, as it is globally, but this wasn’t always the case. Yahoo! Was the most popular search engine in Japan until 2018 and remains the first choice of around 20% of users.
It is worth noting that Yahoo! in Japan is very different to Yahoo! in America. The US version partners with Microsoft whereas Yahoo! Japan is partnered with Google but complements the system with its own algorithm. This should impact the approach adopted by SEO professionals to optimise sites for Yahoo!
SEO campaigns will usually feature the creation of content on social media. In Japan, YouTube is the most popular platform closely followed by LINE, an app that is almost unknown elsewhere. Around 70% of social media users in Japan access LINE and marketing on the platform is booming. X (Twitter) and Instagram are also widely used but Facebook not so much. Usage of LinkedIn is minimal but is growing.
Website appearance and content
Less is more in both North America and Europe when it comes to web content. Modern websites in the West tend to be clean and minimal in appearance. Google favours sites that are easy to read and to navigate. But this approach to presentation is at odds with Japanese preferences, at least for now.
In Japan, consumers love copious content and expect to be bombarded with huge volumes of information. But there are signs that preferences are changing and moving closer to those in the West.
Tech and gaming companies such as Nintendo have begun offering similar websites for their American and Japanese users. However, change is slow, and most businesses would still benefit from creating very different websites for their Japanese audiences.
Writing systems in Japan
There are four different writing systems used in Japan (hiragana, katakana, kanji and the Latin alphabet) which present significant complications and hazards when undertaking translation and SEO.
A single word could be written in several ways in Japan, and this impacts both accessibility and online searches. The Google algorithm is sufficiently sophisticated that it can treat four possible versions of a word as the same word. But the algorithm doesn’t always work perfectly, and search results may vary.
It is crucial to utilise the writing system that would be the most natural for the targeted audience and that will deliver the best search results. Clearly, the multiple language systems complicate keyword research, an important aspect of SEO.
The use of four writing systems should certainly impact the approach to content creation. It is vital that the most appropriate system is utilised for each section of content. Writing systems will also affect other aspects of SEO such as meta descriptions, page titles and meta tags.
There is no substitute for local knowledge when attempting to optimise websites in Japan. Only a native speaker could make the right decisions.
Choosing the right domain
Domestic domains are the most trusted in Japan and usually rank higher in search results. A Japanese domain therefore boasts significant advantages.
There are two Japanese top-level domains – .co.jp and .jp.
But country domains must be purchased and renewed. In addition, separate link profiles should be created for each domain. For these reasons, domestic domains will increase the cost of marketing to a Japanese audience and that is always a consideration.
Domains and slugs
URLs and slugs can include Japanese characters. Google is able to crawl, index and rank URLS with Japanese characters. However, the use of Japanese characters does not appear to improve search results. In addition, when copied and pasted, URLs containing Japanese characters can deliver longer site links increasing the risk of mistakes and the likelihood of producing links that are wrongly converted and so cannot be clicked.
For these reasons, the use of Japanese characters in domains and slugs is not recommended.
Link building is an important aspect of SEO. The approach to gaining backlinks for Japanese sites should be broadly the same as that adopted anywhere. However, links from domestic domains are certainly the most effective.
Merely translating content into Japanese would not be sufficient to achieve excellent search rankings in Japan. Content must be of excellent quality but must also be localised to ensure it is both comprehensible and appealing to Japanese consumers.
Indeed, transcreation is the most effective approach to content. In other words, it is beneficial to produce entirely new content that honours the original but that is tailored to the cultural norms and demands of the new audience. In writing new content, it becomes easier to incorporate the required keywords and they will feel more natural when content has been written from scratch. New content will also limit the potential for duplication which is important as search engines will always penalise duplicate copy.
Content for Japanese websites will often need to be significantly longer than that written for consumers elsewhere. Where 1,000 words would work well in the UK or North America, in Japan, 4,000 words or more could be required to inspire trust in the product or brand.
SEO for Japanese websites is vital but uniquely challenging. It will usually demand a very different approach to that adopted when optimising sites for European and North American audiences. The highest search engine rankings can only be achieved by attending to every detail and building new websites from the ground up.
Simply translating an existing site including the keywords will never be enough. From choosing the best domain to selecting the right words and from understanding search behaviour to marketing via the right social media platforms, SEO for Japanese sites demands the input of specialists.
At Word Connection, we boast specialists in transcreation and keyword research for the Japanese market that could make all the difference to SEO outcomes.