As the SEM global market continues to expand, we are more often in need of ad copy in languages we may or may not understand. As everyone knows, it’s always best to have native translators, but even with the help of native speakers, there are some things to keep in mind that can ease the translation process and help improve performance in your international campaigns.

Not all Native Speakers Speak the Same

Language is constantly changing. Region of origin, age, and familiarity with a product all influence the translation of an ad. As marketers, it is best to try out multiple translators before settling on your go-to person. As translators, be sure to research what it is you’re advertising and use up-to-date language. Check out the client’s and competitor’s websites and read through blogs and reviews of products. Also, don’t be afraid to use English in the ad text if it’s in use by your target audience-after all, English is often considered hip!

Cater Your Message to Your Target Audience

Just as languages are different, so are cultures. This means that not everything that proves successful in one language will be equally so in another. Therefore, it is important to research what your target audience finds important. Should you appeal to vanity, play on fear? Some of this may have to be determined by ad testing, but there are also existing studies showing how cultural symbols can be reinterpreted cross-cultures (I recently read a white paper, for example, showing how a Tommy Hilfiger advertising campaign could be altered to have the same impact in the Chinese market).

In addition to outside market research, conduct a search in the target country’s browser for your keywords to see what type of ads pop up; this will show you the approach your competitors are taking. Keep in mind, however, that not all competitors will have found the best approach, so you should again plan on ad testing to see what brings in the best results. And just like in your national campaigns, test your own offers against each other: Is free shipping more effective than “$20 Off,” for example?

Pitfalls for Multiple Language Translations

If rolling out ad copy in several languages, avoid use of idiomatic phrases as the message may be lost in translation

Be aware that your English ad copy may not meet character restrictions once translated, so let your translators know in advance what can be omitted from the ad if this is the case. Also, as different languages/Search Engines may have different character restrictions, be sure to notify your translators of the character limitations for their ads.

As a side note, keep in mind that in Google (and potentially other Search Engines), when using languages with double-width characters like Chinese, spaces, punctuation, or any non-double width character only count as 1 character as opposed to 2. This definitely complicates the checking of ad text length; Excel is no longer quite as handy!

Also note that your approach/rules for English ads won’t necessarily apply in other languages. Clients (and users) may have different expectations for capitalization, potential elimination of prepositions or determiners, and even for whether it works for description line 1 to run into description line 2. It seems that some of these are issues that continue to be under discussion for English ads as well, however, so for languages where it is unclear what rules apply, you can either simply adhere to what feels best for your client or ask to test the possibilities against one another (Example: Title case vs. Sentence case).

descriptions french ads

Some of the ads shown run into description line 2; some use discreet sentences in each line.

Furthermore, if you are planning to do any keyword customization in your ads once you have your translations, be sure you know the order of nouns/adjectives and any other modifications that should be made (adjective changes for gender or word case, for example). Sites like (covering French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish) are useful to see how a term or phrase is used online, and has online dictionaries and forums where you can get feedback from other members on potential translations.

Watch for Trademarked Product Terms

As translators are not necessarily SEM experts, be sure that they are aware of what terms are trademarked brand terms and should not be translated. If you are unsure whether the branded term has been trademarked in a translated version (example, 可口可乐 for Coca-Cola), pay a visit to your client’s website in the targeted domain to find the product advertised.

Slogans don’t always work in translation, so if you’re using your client’s slogan in your ad, be sure that you check its meaning with your translator (See Oddee for some awkward brand and slogan translations).

Similarly, be aware that using your branded product name in word plays within your ad text may not have the same effect if the branded term has not been translated in your target language. For example, if you have a lotion named Sunshine, the ad text “Be a Ray of Sunshine Today” may not necessarily have the same impact once translated into the target language if the user does not know the meaning of the English word “sunshine.”


Translating ads is clearly a lot more complex than plugging your ad into Google Translate or even getting a native speaker to provide a literal translation. Hopefully these tips will ease the translation process and improve performance in your international campaigns.


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Heather Scott
Heather Scott joined 3Q Digital and the world of SEM in October 2011. She taught ESL at all levels for several years and completed her Masters in Linguistics from NEIU in May 2009. In her free time, she enjoys playing music (guitar, violin, piano, accordion), cooking, and learning languages (German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese).