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Low-quality Translations can Affect Overall Search Performance, says Google Webmaster Trends Analyst

Localization can build up — or drag down — search rankings across your entire site.

In a Q&A video earlier this year, Google’s John Mueller was asked a question about the impact of translation on a website’s overall search performance. His answer confirmed something localization experts have known for a long time: that poor translation can not only turn away potential customers, but also damage the health of your entire site.

The question established a scenario where excellent French content shares a web domain with some poorly translated German content. In this context, Mueller was asked whether the ‘poor language version can influence negatively the success of the more established French version;’ in other words, ‘if one language version is of poor quality, [will] all the other language versions on the same domain suffer as well?’

Mueller’s answer was as follows:

I guess the short answer is, yes.

The main issue here is less about these being translated versions of the content but more that for some things we look at the quality of the site overall. When we look at the quality of the site overall, if you have significant portions that are lower quality, it doesn't matter so much to us why they would be lower quality. […] But if we see that there are significant parts that are lower quality, then we might think that overall, this website is not so fantastic as we thought. That can have effects in different places across the website.

So in short, if you have a very low-quality translation that's also indexed and very visible in search, then that can definitely pull down the good quality translations or original content that you also have.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, Google

Let’s take a look at what this means for search performance and how localization can help you improve your rankings.


Localization is a Key Part of Website Quality

Google is extremely secretive about the inner workings of its ranking algorithm, so Mueller was never going to announce that translation quality is a key ranking factor during this Q&A session. In fact, in a follow-up question he goes on to say that Google does not ‘have anything that specifically looks for low-quality translations.’ However, Mueller’s first answer makes it clear that localization can have a dramatic impact on site performance by influencing the overall quality of your site.

Mueller suggests that having ‘significant portions’ of a site at a higher or lower quality can affect Google’s overall assessment of that site, and subsequently how well it will rank for a wide variety of search terms. This is particularly true when both good and bad sections of a site share a domain name. Since many localization strategies nest new language versions of a website as a subdirectory of the original site, localization is one of the easiest ways to create a significant amount of bad content for your site. As a result, the way you localize your site can drag down your site’s perceived quality — and with it your SERP rankings.

It’s incredibly easy to create bad content in another language. Solutions like automated translation are cheap, fast, and allow for high volume, but they can come with compromises that you would never accept with your original content. Strange syntax, muddled messaging, and a disregard for user experience condemn your important pages in your new language, while also damaging their counterparts in every other language.

Mueller’s comments make it clear that this isn’t something you can afford to overlook. Your site is a single entity, with many intricately connected parts that affect the health of the whole. That means your important pages need to be of the highest quality in every language if you want to reap the traffic, visibility, and conversion benefits of strong search performance.


How to Improve Website Quality

There’s no quick fix to a low-quality website. But if your site has been suffering since you went multilingual, don’t lose hope. Mueller also gave some insight into how you might fix those rankings over time, while also improving website quality across the board. 

When asked how Google assesses poor quality, Mueller said that there aren’t any specific signs of low-quality; five misspellings on a page won’t impact your site. Instead, he advised that it ‘is really important to have objective feedback’ on your site from neutral observers. These people can help you to catch the ‘small subjective things’ which, when added together, can improve your site over time. In short, the solution to poor quality is to focus on human experience.

The same is true of localization. It’s common knowledge that you should use a professional translator for important pages, but a human-centered approach goes a lot further than that. Good localization processes focus on creating natural user experiences in your new language, from creating native-like prose to helping users to quickly and easily navigate the site. By focusing on user feedback, good language processes make your site much more natural for your users. This makes them stay longer and read more, which in turn signals to search algorithms that your site is of a high quality.

It’s no coincidence that Mueller’s focus on user feedback is mirrored in good localization processes. After all, localization affects big parts of your website and deals with a very human problem: making your site accessible for a global audience. Since so many facets of localization have an impact on digital experience, it’s obvious that localization plays an important role in maintaining website quality — and, by extension, search performance.


Assessing Global Digital Experience

Before you make wholesale changes to your localization process, you need to know exactly where your current processes are going wrong. Lionbridge’s Global Digital Experience Assessments combine both SEO and localization expertise to help you analyze and improve your site's performance in over 35 languages. Using linguistic audits, search analysis, and deep dives into your technical SEO, our team can identify the reasons why your site is being penalized by search algorithms, before helping you to build a website that exceeds Google’s quality expectations.

For more information on our assessment process, visit our digital experience page or schedule a meeting with the team. 

Alternatively, watch the full Google SEO office hours for more helpful advice from John Mueller and the team at Google Search Central.

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