10 missed opportunities in search engine marketing in Japan

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Japan is a highly developed “wired” country, has a similar e-commerce infrastructure, uses both Google and Yahoo, and is the world leader in blogging and 3G mobile use. Yet the failure rate among multinational search marketers trying to succeed in Japan is by far the highest in the world.

To truly understand why this is so difficult, we must first understand the missed opportunities that are not so obvious. I found 10, but quickly ran out of room for this topic, so we’ll cover the first five today and then the rest in my next column.

Missed Opportunity 1: Google, Yahoo or?

When targeting a country with multiple search engines, it is recommended that you focus on one main one. A primary will allow you to develop your keywords with solid analytical support, maintain an organic structure by following the rules of a search engine and lead you to the most traffic.

Let’s start by looking at the Japanese search engine market and the paid search market to determine your primary search engine to focus on.

Japanese search engine market share

Graphic courtesy of Infocubic.co.jp

In the Japanese search engine market share chart, Yahoo Japan and its partnerships continue to hold the market while Google and its partnerships continue to remain in second place. Although there are other search engines on the market, their share is so insignificant right now that it may not be to your advantage.

Japanese ad spend market share (paid search)
Japanese ad spend (paid search)

Graphic courtesy of Infocubic.co.jp

When you look at where ad spend is going on the Japanese ad spend graph, you’ll probably be surprised at how large a share Yahoo Japan (Overture) gets. Many marketers assume it’s 50/50 between the two search engines, and many global advertisers only advertise on Google.

Yahoo Japan should be your top search engine. Not only does it have the greatest reach, but it also has a better layout that appeals to the Japanese user, which means more clicks for advertisers. Take a look at this recent eye-tracking study provided by CNET comparing the SERPs of Google Japan with Yahoo Japan.

Interestingly enough, test subjects appear to show paid search results at around 30 percent on Yahoo Japan and Google at around 5 percent. There are many factors to consider as well, four ads versus three, larger font, paid relevance versus organic relevance, etc.

Yahoo Japan is more consumer oriented and Google is more business oriented. Not to say that Google is lacking, they have a great shopping portal, but more and more consumers are using its competitor.

Missed Opportunity 2: Mobile Search

It’s easy enough to look at the search market share, but a large chunk of the Japanese search market has been left out of these charts. The Japanese mobile search market is huge and growing faster than green grass across a goose.

This is not surprising, given that they are the global leaders in 3G mobile use, reaching over 50 million users. Yet many of us search marketers wonder if mobile is just too young to be mature at this point?

The point is, if you think the market is too small, you might be missing out on another opportunity if you don’t implement or plan a Japanese mobile search campaign. The adoption rate of smartphones and iPads in Japan is already booming.

The Japanese Consortium for the Promotion of Mobile Computing cites over 55% growth in adoption of smartphones and web browsing as the second most popular activity just after reading email. In 2010, according to the MM Research Institute, Apple’s iPhone has already conquered 72% of the smartphone market in less than a year. So who is leading the mobile search?

Japanese mobile market share
Japanese mobile market share
Research and markets, 2010 mobile operator forecasts

Looking at the Japanese mobile market as a whole, Google Japan is the leader with its search partnerships with Docomo and KDDI with Softbank in third place. Yahoo Japan powers Softbank phones (and vice versa, given that Softbank is the majority shareholder of Yahoo Japan).

Japanese smartphone market share
Japanese smartphone market share

Google may have a good share of the mobile market in Japan, but the largest user base is in smartphones. Yahoo is the big winner today, holding the largest market for mobile search smartphones.

Missed Opportunity 3: Landing Page Design

One thing the Japanese have in common with the Germans is their ability to look at things on a page with a quality and technical factor. However, the two cultures are far apart when it comes to designing a page.

In general, Asians don’t care what we in the West think of as ‘busy’. So what are the most important elements of a Japanese landing page that resonate well with the Japanese user and increase conversions?

In this sample McAfee landing page, there are lots of offers, diagrams, and big clickable graphical buttons. It’s pretty busy with almost all of the white space taken up.

McAfee Landing Page Example

So the key to this missed opportunity is not to keep the same look and feel as your western landing pages. Mix it up and occupy it with good, relevant data points that will captivate your audience.

Missed Opportunity 4: Paid Links

By Western standards and according to Google, paid links are prohibited. However, you might be surprised to find that Japan is an exception. I’m torn because I can see from a search engine’s perspective that it is manipulating their link values. But if you monetize your site with ads, why can’t you sell links if your site is popular?

A few years ago, paid links took off like a scalded chimpanzee in Japan. To the frustration of many seasoned search optimizers, most of these new “Japanese SEO experts” were just link brokers. It’s especially frustrating when your client’s competitors have outperformed you within days for no apparent reason. Add to the fact that trying to get ethical links from publishers has become increasingly difficult as more sites have chosen to monetize them.

So today they still have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. While there are still some hard working natural link builders in Japan, they can be rare. Most SEMs in Japan now offer both, i.e. without much transparency. Yahoo doesn’t penalize you for paid links and they do have the market share. Enough said.

Missed Opportunity 5: Hosting and TLDs

While hosting in Japan is not required, you can still benefit from hosting your site in Japan. A server in Japan actually works in your favor because not only do you no longer have to worry about connectivity issues, but your server makes search engines feel like you are local. Being local versus a search engine gives you a nice little edge over those with servers outside of the country.

The TLD for Japan is “.jp” and “.co.jp”; however, the latter option is preferable, as it provides an additional confidence advantage. Having a Japanese TLD gives you a search advantage, but a trust advantage will go a long way in helping you search and behave more locally in the Japanese market. This is a major missed opportunity if you are using a Japanese domain extension.

Recently, ICANN allowed non-Latin characters in domain names for Japanese and other languages. It hasn’t really taken off in Japan yet although it’s fun to hear the discussions about Kanji characters as users often can’t identify if a domain is Japanese or Chinese.

In “10 Missed Opportunities in Search Engine Marketing in Japan, Part 2,” we’ll cover translations, keyword research, blogging, social media, Japanese trust factors, and a secret missed opportunity that few people know.

Thanks to my friends for Wasabi Communications and Infocubic for their excellent feedback.

join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, email marketing, real-time web , local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while providing high level strategy, keynotes, exposure with over 100 companies, events networking, parties and more!

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