There are a lot of popular global businesses in Japan. One of them is Uber Eats, a food delivery service that has been increasingly successful in Japanese cities since it opened its business here in 2016. Though there are ways to acquire users through search engines in Japan, it’s better to know the difference between the Japanese market and the global market when considering search engine optimization (SEO). In this article, you will get an idea of how you should run SEO strategy in the Japanese online market.
Search Engine Market Share
In Japan, Google has taken the top position in terms of search engine share. The biggest difference from global market trends is Yahoo! Japan’s relative popularity. Yahoo! Japan is the second most popular search engine here in Japan — almost 17% – 19% of search engine users go to Yahoo! Japan. Bing has a different search engine algorithm from Google and Yahoo, but its usage is pretty limited at less than 5%.
Unsurprisingly, If you want to run an SEO strategy in Japan, focus on Google. One thing I would note is that most Google users are mobile users in Japan (notably iOS users), though it would depend on your business model.
Even though Yahoo has been unpopular in the United States in recent years, Yahoo has been still popular in the Japanese market. However, you don’t need to worry about it because Yahoo! Japan uses the same search engine algorithm as Google since 2010. So if you focus on optimizing your website for Google, you will be optimizing for Yahoo as well.
Bing is originally the search engine made by Microsoft and is used by some Windows users. Their user base is pretty limited, so normally you don’t have to think about it. If you want to optimize the website for Bing, you can set up the Search Console tool provided by Bing. They also have webmaster guidelines if you need it.
Kanji, hiragana, and katakana
Upon keyword research, one thing you should be careful of is the fact that the Japanese use three distinct but usually intertwined writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. This can cause problems, such as when typing an English sentence into Google Translate to Japanese or vice-versa, where it can end up translating poorly despite using advanced translation technology (or because of culturally-specific references/implications). The Japanese sentence structure is quite different from English, which can add to the confusion. Furthermore, loan words in Japanese use the katakana alphabet, which essentially makes them different (but similar) words altogether from their original English (or other languages) source. There are rarely any directly-translated foreign words in Japanese because of katakana’s place in the Japanese language.
You need to think about how your targeting keywords are written in Japanese. Let’s say your brand name is “Slack.” You would need to think about how Slack is written in Japanese. In this case, it becomes “Surakku” (“スラック” or “すらっく”).
Romaji and English
Romaji is the use of the Latin alphabet to translate Japanese, written as phonetic syllables. It is not common to write Romaji (it is more used as a learning tool), but it can be convenient sometimes for finding the right phonetic translation of a Japanese word.
English is sometimes seen in Japanese marketing. Japanese people will still often search in English, not Japanese, for something like the Slack app. Having a Japanese translated word for the app would be ideal, though.
Search Engine Optimization Strategies
Title and Description
Optimizing your title and description is a very basic initiative for SEO. One thing to note here is that Japanese characters are counted as double compared to English letters. So if you want to have keywords in your title and description, the number of characters would be something to be careful of.
Content is king. As would be done in the global market, Japanese businesses are working hard to publish high-quality content in the Japanese market. For global businesses, if you already have English content on your website, then you should translate your existing English content to Japanese and put keywords into your content to make sure that your content is targeting keywords. You can do the same thing in other countries around the world. This way, you can maximize the return on investment from your global content.
Make sure that your website has a mobile-friendly, responsive design. If you are a B2C business model, it is likely that more than 80% of traffic will be mobile users (especially iOS in Japan). Not only because Google cares if your website has responsive design or not, but also you should do this in consideration of user experience. Google has started mobile-first indexing in the Japanese market since 2018, so if your website is not mobile-friendly, your website may not be indexed.
In 2010, Google has implemented an algorithm called the Speed Update. If your website is too slow, your website will not take a higher rank in the search engine because of this logic change. Japan has relatively good Internet speed according to Akamai research, but it is always good to have faster websites for users. Check your website with a mobile speed test provided by Google to see if your website is fast enough for users or not.
The HTML tag for a multi-language website
Some of our clients asked us why their English global websites are taking a higher rank than Japanese websites. This happens often because of a lack of HTML code necessary to let Google understand that your Japanese website is for a Japanese audience, and your global English website is for English users. Let’s take an example here.
This is Uber’s Japanese website. As you can see, there is a bunch of HTML code saying something like this:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="ja-jp" href="https://www.uber.com/jp/ja/">
This code is important to make sure that Google recognizes this page as a Japanese website. You need to implement this code into your global website, and also into your Japanese website.
<loc> in Sitemap
Also, make sure to have <loc> in your sitemap to specify what sitemaps are in what countries and languages. Here is Uber’s example:
As you can see, Uber is specifying sitemaps using <loc>. If you want to know how you implement a sitemap with <loc> with more technical detail, check the guideline by Google or share it with your dev team.
Domains and permalinks
.com/ja or .com/jp?
Another thing our clients often ask us is that website should have .com/ja or .com/jp on their URL.
What we see in the Japanese market most is adding /jp at the end of the URL of the global website. This is probably the simplest way to start your SEO strategy in the Japanese market.
Another way is adding language code (ja) and country code (jp) into your URL. Examples are:
There is no clear answer to which one is better. If your global business cares not only for the country but also for language, make sure to keep both language code and country code. If not, simply having the country code works too.
One thing to avoid is having a completely different domain. Amazon has “amazon.co.jp” which is different from the global domain “amazon.com”. This is a pretty solid approach and notes that Amazon Japan has an office in Tokyo and Japanese professional SEO experts are working there. If you use different domains, your domain authority will be from scratch, meaning you will not utilize the domain authority your global domain already has.
The best and easiest way to utilize your domain authority is subdirectory structure so that your global domain authority will be stronger and you can utilize the global domain’s authority in the Japanese market effectively.
It may be helpful to know what domains are popular in Japan. The most popular ones are “.jp” or “co.jp”. You will see many company business websites with jp or co.jp because they are said to be trustworthy in the Japanese business scene. Examples:
Also, it is good to know that the government websites have “go.jp”, not “.gov”. Examples:
Japanese in permalink
You might wonder if you should have Japanese words in your URL. It is not a bad idea, but I would not recommend it. I recommend to keep English in the URL for the following reasons:
- URL has no impact on the ranking factor. Whatever the language or character the page has in URL, the page can take high rank or low rank depending on other factors (ex. title and description).
- Japanese in URL can often be encoded and it’s not human friendly. If you visit a URL like “https://www.google.com/search?q=日本語” and if you copy and paste this URL, it will be encoded like this: “https://www.google.com/search?q=%E6%97%A5…”.
- It can cause issues somewhere in the code or database and so it may be annoying for engineers. If the URL was Japanese and if you want to check the database, you will need to type Japanese in the query. Japanese characters sometimes cause problems in coding, so even Japanese engineers try to avoid Japanese characters where possible in the code.
There are certain points to consider for Japanese SEO strategy, but the basics and what is required are basically the same as global ones. If you have more questions or if you need help, feel free to contact me by clicking Contact KOCHI below so that I can help you dominate the Japanese SEO market.
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