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Breaking into China, Russia, and the Asian Markets with Michael Bonfils

Episode Overview

Michael Bonfils of SEM International is an early innovator with internationalization for the vast Asian marketplace. Since the ‘90s, he has specialized in providing multilingual SEO, paid search, and translation and localization services for some of the most complex digital marketplaces in the world–witnessing firsthand their remarkable evolution. With its wealth, booming middle class, and sheer number of people, how do SEOs navigate the complexity and opportunities of China, Russia, and the Asian markets?

Michael shares his expertise on:

  • What is simplified Chinese aka Pinyin and its different dialects?
  • How do you effectively focus on a specific province in China?
  • What are the strategies for Taiwan, where they speak Mandarin, and Hong Kong, where they speak Cantonese–when both write in traditional Chinese?
  • How do you obtain hosting and a Chinese URL?
  • How important is localization and translating your site appropriately?
  • What are the strategies for internationalizing when you’re expanding into Asia broadly, and not just China?
  • What are the challenges of working with Naver and the opportunities in the Korean market?
  • What is the impact of mobile use in Asia on SEO?
  • How does one consider other markets like Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Iran, and Thailand and determine their potential opportunities?


Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome to international SEO month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re going to talk about expanding your horizons and your search strategies to reach new territories. Joining us today is Michael Bonfils, or Bonfils if you’re in France, who is the Global Managing Director at SEM International, which is a subsidiary of International Media Corporation that specializes in providing international and multilingual SEO, paid search, translation and localization, and programmatic display services for advertisers and digital marketing agencies. Today Michael and I are going to talk about his experience as an international SEO and also what it takes to optimize SEO strategies specifically for the Asian continent.

Ben:                             But before we hear from Michael, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions and to support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to

Ben:                             Okay, on with the show. Here is my conversation with Michael Bonfils or Bonfils, the Global Managing Director at SEM International. Michael, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

MIcheal:                       Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Ben:                             Exciting to have you here, and how badly did I butcher your name in the intro?

MIcheal:                       It was fine. You actually pronounced it good. I’d rather be called a Goodson, which is the English equivalent of my name, rather than good little girl. That’s the one thing about French people is I’m half French and half Greek, but American, and the one thing that I’ve noticed that French people get really irritated when you try to pronounce or mispronounce things because you’re slaughtering them or insulting them in some way or another.

Ben:                             Well, I think it’s fair to say I’m just going to go with Michael Goodson from now on and I apologize if I offended your friend’s sensibilities, but I am incredibly excited to have you on the show on love to talk about International SEO with you no matter what your name is or how you pronounce it.

MIcheal:                       Thank you.

Ben:                             But that said, let’s hear a little bit about you. Tell us about, you know, your background and about some of the work that you’re doing at SEM International.

MIcheal:                       Yeah, no problem. I go back in the search industry all the way back to October of 1996. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Originally I got interested in search a little bit before … About 94, 95 I was working for NATO in Europe during the war in Yugoslavia. To get away I actually went to a college in Hungary to just connect with people that were building Yahoo, and I thought it was very interesting. Eventually, in ‘96 I came back to the US. I got a job working for a large real estate brand–it was actually three brands in one large corporate real estate company–and I started working in what was then called relocation, which would have been the precursor to the first lead management or online lead management projects that they ever had.

MIcheal:                       So, I had made a deal with them and said, “You know what? Let me optimize websites, bring in traffic and their real estate forms and see what we can do to move people across the country.” It worked really well. That’s how I started in SEO. From there I left and started a real estate portal that was built on search algorithms. After that I was discovered by a guy named Jim Gilliam, and Jim Gilliam is the chief architect of one of the big search engines back in the day. He asked me to come over and be director of search at, and at that time in the 1999 to 2000, almost 2001, was the biggest search engine that just specialized in B2B, so it was very interesting. I learned a lot about algorithms and how search spiders work. I learned the construction of the code of spiders.

MIcheal:                       So, for me and it being an SEO, it was kind of like a kid to candy store. I really, really enjoyed learning that back end side.

Ben:                             You got to see the Wizard of Oz’s office behind the curtain.

MIcheal:                       Yeah, totally. And after, you know, I worked there for a while and I met this guy that was working at a company called Website Results, which was the first SEO agency that sold their business practice for $100 million in stock from a company called 24/7 Media, and he wanted to start an agency. So I started an agency with him. Eventually I got some new partners. He was bought out by those partners. I sold that agency in 2004. We had office in New York and in Los Angeles, and what I really wanted to do was to actually learn about display and other products paid and integrate those into SEO.

MIcheal:                       I thought this was innovative. We’re definitely doing some real cutting-edge things. What I noticed though, that internationally everyone was years behind, and my background as an international marketing major, I love international, so I’m like, “Well, how do I take this agency model and implement it globally?” So it started with the company that had purchased us. They were closing an office they owned in Hong Kong and they asked me if I wanted to take it over. I said, “Yeah, I’ll take it over and I’ll teach them everything I know about search and will do search in China.” Well, I don’t think I could have picked a harder market. I mean, on one hand it’s good because it is the absolute most difficult market on the planet.

Ben:                             It’s the biggest.

MIcheal:                       It’s the biggest, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Ben:                             Do you speak Chinese?

MIcheal:                       1. I don’t speak Chinese.

MIcheal:                       2. At the time I’d never been there.

MIcheal:                       3. They have a firewall that prevents everybody from going inside.

MIcheal:                       4. Search to them meant a banner that you pay $50 a month for and get no data from.

MIcheal:                       It was like, “Oh, my God, this is so far behind that this market.”

Ben:                             Tell me a little bit about what it was like when you started working on SEO in China and knowing that, you know, there were obviously language problems you’re running into. There’s some cultural differences between the rest of the world and China, and you know, the SEO community is probably a little bit farther behind. The idea of search was a little different. What were some of the hurdles that you ran into?

MIcheal:                       Yeah. Oh, God. There was some really big hurdles. Number one, there’s a firewall, and this firewall prevents pretty much everything from the outside of China to go in, so you had that. You also had connectivity speeds. Connectivity at that time was really, really poor. I mean, we’re talking dial up 1995 speeds. Mobile wasn’t really strong yet at that time, and you had to rely on a lot of users coming from Internet cafes, right? So you had all of these different components. Then the language, oh, my God, the language was really challenging.

Ben:                             That’s seems like it’s the biggest hurdle. Mostly when you’re working in SEO and you’re trying to localize content, you know, if you are not a local speaker how are you able to do your quality assurance? I’m assuming that you’re finding people that are native speakers or that are inside China to do your content localization.

MIcheal:                       Yeah, that’s exactly right. So the partner that I had who I took over their office in Hong Kong, she’s Chinese, native mainland Chinese speaker. So she was able to portray everything that I taught her into Chinese for a new team to understand and develop. That was the first hurdle. The second is, I mean, what you just brought up, was the language. The thing with simplified Chinese is that there’s a lot of dialects to it. So not only do you have characters, right, instead of words, unless you convert to what’s called pinyin, but there’s many dialects.

MIcheal:                       For example, our first client, our first big multinational client in China was Intel. We worked with an agency here in the US and launched Intel on the Chinese market. What had to do is we actually had 15 dialect variations of every keyword, so you can imagine Intel having thousands of keywords. We had to multiply that by 15 to get the right keywords for the market in China.

Ben:                             That’s interesting. We’ve talked a lot about internationalizing in Europe and how it can be complicated because you have countries like Switzerland where you’re speaking Swiss German, you’re speaking French, you’re speaking traditional German, and that it’s all in one country. This is essentially Switzerland Times five, right? For-

MIcheal:                       Oh times 100.

Ben:                             A single country you’re running 15 different translations.

MIcheal:                       That’s right. It is times 100, but here’s the good thing. So in, say, a Swiss German, right? So, if you had a billion people in Switzerland dialect of Swiss German actually matters a lot. At least with Switzerland you can get by with German, right? It’s better to have Swiss German especially if you’re really targeting Swiss people, but a lot of Swiss people know that most sites are in German and they’re not expecting to see Swiss German. So they’re in China? It’s different. You’ve got 150 million people here that speak this dialect of the same language, then another 300 that speak this dialect of the same.

Ben:                             From a usability perspective, I have a question in that if there are 15 different dialects within China that are relevant that you basically need to do 15 translations, how are you setting up your site so somebody can decide which dialect they want? Are they regionally specific? Is it, you know, western China speaks one dialect and eastern China speaks another and you’re doing it essentially on a state by state basis or is there some sort of a toggle or device setting?

MIcheal:                       Yeah, a lot has changed since those early days. Mobile and especially browser and pinyin technologies kind of standardized the language so it wasn’t as complicated. But you’ll find something really interesting. In China they had like a, kind of like before WeChat where everybody was given a number. That’s the interesting thing, so instead of an email address, I would have 32151.2221 @ whatever.

Ben:                             Yeah, it’s essentially like your IP address.

MIcheal:                       Yeah. So even the websites had numbers in them, because numbers are always going to be the same. Characters may change by dialect, but numbers are the same. So it made it really interesting because you’ve had so many number variations. Eventually the browser technologies were able to say, “Okay, well we’re going to interpret these characters into pinyin,” which is like Latinized versions of these characters, “And we’ll make it very easy.” So once that started to place out it was a lot easier. Now today it’s mainly simplified Chinese that, you know, one simplified Chinese rule set and you’re covered by any other dialect or anything else.

MIcheal:                       In some cases though, this is important, is that there are provinces, like if you are a Chinese company in China and you are concentrating on one specific province you probably want to use that dialect.

Ben:                             Okay. You mentioned that, you know, it’s changed a lot and the browser technology has made internationalization into China a lot easier. What are some of the rules or guidelines that you have for someone who is trying to break into the Chinese market in SEO? Localization of the content is going to be a challenge even if it’s easier. There’s also some cultural differences, and you know, Baidu as a search engine in itself, it has to be very different than Google. How to SEOs think about, you know, cracking the nut of China?

MIcheal:                       Yeah. I mean, well Baidu is different. There are a few things that Baidu has, and we could run through some of those big differentiators. Number one, first of all, this is important, don’t consider Hong Kong and Taiwan Baidu used. I mean, they use Google in their countries or their version of Yahoo in their countries, which would be powered by Google, so the Google rules are the same except the language is a little different, right? One writes in traditional, the other one writes in simplified. People in Taiwan typically speak Mandarin. People in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. However, they both write traditional Chinese, which is not the same as simplified.

MIcheal:                       Also, a difference between traditional Chinese in Hong Kong versus Taiwan, it’s kind of like British English and English. So consider those two areas by themselves. Concentrate on Google. You’re not going to run into as many problems as you are in mainland China. Now, mainland China is a whole different ballgame. Now you’ve got two major search engines. One is the dominant one, which is Baidu. There’s another one called 360 which is relatively new and 360 comes from the company that created the browser technology that was able to interpret and change the language a little bit. They captured some market share and they’re growing. I’d probably say they have 20% to 30%. It depends on who you ask.

Ben:                             Which doesn’t sound like a large number until you think about China being something like 2 billion people. So, you’re working a search engine with hundreds of millions of visitors a day.

MIcheal:                       Exactly. Billions, right? So a billion people, way over a billion people actually are using search and different technologies there. So, going into Baidu, there’s a couple things. One, we’ll start with the most important and the biggest challenge that most companies have, and that speed, right? The speed of your site is very, very important in Baidu. They need speed. Now, you have a challenge because you have a firewall and the connectivity speeds in China for the most part, aren’t that high, are probably one of the lowest in the world. Then you have the firewall, so you make it really, really difficult for any site to actually be accessed outside of the firewall. You have use VPNs and all these other things in China.

MIcheal:                       So, the next step is, well, how do I get a site in China? Well, you got to host in China, right? Hosting in China isn’t as easy as you might think because you need to have governmental licenses and there’s red tape that you have to go through to actually get hosting. It’s not impossible, it’s just that the government actually controls things really strong.

MIcheal:                       The other thing is once you get hosting, you have the domain name issue, right? Baidu is going to give preference, and most people their trust is going to give preference to a Chinese URL, right? So, that’s another factor. It’s like, okay, how do I get hosting? How do I get a Chinese URL? Well, there’s a number of companies that can provide that in China. They can also do all of the paperwork, but you also start thinking, “Well, how am I going to get my massive side or my content management system or anything else over there?” And those are things that you’ll have to work out internally.

Ben:                             It sounds like there’s an incredible amount of red tape and challenges to launching in China. Why is it worth it?

MIcheal:                       Oh, my God. It is worth it because of the people. I mean, the amount of people there for one, the economy is booming. I mean, their middle class, probably even their upper class is bigger than most countries populations. So there’s a lot of wealth and there’s lot of opportunity there. But one key point that I want to say is trust. I mean, they do not trust anybody really because they know, I mean, you know, China is full of copywriters, people that are making copies of things. So Chinese people, they are not going around, “Oh, I’ll have a copy of this, a copy of this.” They’re like, “God, can I just get the original?”

MIcheal:                       That’s a barrier that a company has to do, especially if they’re not a Chinese company and they’re trying to sell to Chinese. So, number one, you really need to get that localization down right. We’re not talking about some auto translate or anything down like that. You want to get localization correct and have your site translated appropriately so that there is nothing in there that’s going to turn somebody off because you used some auto translate or something on your site to reach Chinese people. They are mistrusting. So, you know, you want to develop that.

Ben:                             So it sounds like, you know, China in itself, the two primary search engines, you know, building your content assets in China and your web hosting and there’s a lot that goes into optimizing for China and, you know, for obvious reasons, it’s the most populous country in the world. It’s worthwhile to go through those pain points, but you have to be committed to building a site there.

Ben:                             Outside of China, you know, obviously Asia is a large continent spanning all the way from Russia into Japan. How do you think about internationalizing if you’re trying to expand into Asia broadly, not just China, are there any rules of thumb that come to mind when you’re trying to reach other Asian markets?

MIcheal:                       Yeah, well let’s break down the APAC market just a little bit. So you’ve got Australia, New Zealand, those are no brainers, right? If you can do the UK, you can do Canada. Rules are the same. Russia on the other hand, they’ve got both Google Russia, but they also have Yandex and Yandex is a very local … it gives strength to the locality of search results. In other words, if I’m in Saint Petersburg and my water goes out in my building, I can go to Yandex and I could type what’s happening in my water and Yandex automatically will instantly pinpoint exactly where I am and say, “Well, here’s what’s wrong with your water, and this is how long it’s going to be until your water gets turned back on.” It’s really clever. So it’s a great, great search engine.

MIcheal:                       The thing that’s nice about Yandex is they have their webmaster tools and everything in English, so they’re fantastic to work with. I highly recommend, Yandex and learning Yandex. It’s probably the easiest if you Russia eastern search engine to get on and to get familiar with before you start jumping into Baidu or Naver. Speaking of Naver, that’s Korea. Naver, oh, my God, that is like … Remember AOL?

Ben:                             Yeah, I’ve heard of it.

MIcheal:                       Oh, Naver is a pain in the butt, but the Korean market is a huge market, and to understand Naver, and we can talk about this later, if you can crack Naver you’re a pro at anything. Naver’s probably the most complicated search engine product that I’ve ever seen. Then of course you’ve got Google in Japan and Yahoo in Japan powered by Google, so that’s pretty easy. I mean, a lot of the rules apply. I mean, Japan is a great market. If you’re just getting into a non-English speaking market in Asia, I picked Japan first, and concentrate on that just to get kind of a feel for these and mindset and understand that, you know, they’re Asians … I apologize for stereotyping, but they tend to be much more research oriented than other markets around the world.

Ben:                             One thing I want to ask you about is, you know, we sort of ignored one of the other sleeping giants in terms of population. We talked about China and Russia, Japan, obviously a much smaller population, but a huge economy. What about India?

MIcheal:                       Well, I mean fortunately with India you’ve got Google. Secondly, fortunately with India, you have a hundred million SEOs over there.

Ben:                             True. Large technology community.

MIcheal:                       Yeah. Then you have another thing about India is Hindi, right? So, the language, I mean you think China is dialect rich? India is so dialect rich. I mean, there’s hundreds of dialects there and it makes it very complicated. So most people just revert to English in India. However, standard Hindi language can be used as well. It’s a big market. But I, of the 15 years that I’ve run a business in these markets, it’s the least requested out of all the entire world. The other really, really challenging market in Asia is Indonesia.

Ben:                             Indonesia is obviously another huge market. The other thing that sticks out to me is, you know, we’ve talked about the big countries, right? The biggest economies. When you aggregate the rest of Asia, obviously it’s a huge amount of area. Indonesia specifically is a massive, massive country, a large collection of islands. But there’s everything from Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Iran, Thailand. You know, like there are 50 countries plus in the rest of Asia. How do you think about tackling search engine optimization if you’re truly trying to go worldwide with this aggregation of smaller countries and smaller areas?

MIcheal:                       That’s a good question. These smaller markets, I mean, even though they’re up and coming, the internet use just pretty low, but the key to these markets is really focusing on mobile and focusing on Google. Right? And you do of course have the language that you want to localize for. We don’t have a ton of demand in Southeast Asia, but what I’ve found is probably, you know, poor sites, you don’t have that much competition, which is a good thing, but there isn’t that much traffic, believe it or not, even though the markets are, the populations are huge. My feeling is these markets are just going to explode over time.

MIcheal:                       Vietnam, I mean that’s an area that we feel is going to just explode in the next five years and be a great market to target search engine optimization. And you have Singapore too. Now, I totally forgot about Singapore and I shouldn’t have, but Singapore is like Dubai, right? It’s a great market. So if you’re doing southeast Asia, I probably would focus on Singapore, I’d focus on Hong Kong, and I focus on Taiwan. Those three little mini states will get you some traction into those other larger markets in Southeast Asia.

Ben:                             Yeah. It’s interesting to think about a lot of these are developing countries, or at least the economies are developing, where the populations are large, but the web usage is relatively small and primarily happening on mobile phones.

MIcheal:                       Yeah, exactly. It is primarily mobile phones. I mean, even in China. It’s, what, 98% mobile phones? So making sure your site is mobile friendly in these sites are really critical.

Ben:                             Okay. Michael, any last words about SEO optimization for Asia? I know you mentioned a couple of specific countries to target. Any last tricks or resources that you recommend for any brands that are trying to reach the continent?

MIcheal:                       Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple things. One is technology. So Baidu has their own version of webmaster tools and they also have their own analytics. Google sometimes doesn’t fire appropriately in terms of analytics, so if you’re putting Google analytics and throwing it out on your Chinese website you might have a discrepancy here, right?

Ben:                             Begging for trouble.

MIcheal:                       You’re begging for troubles. But what we found, interest enough, is Yandex. Yandex has a analytic tool and it’s in English and it’s really good, but what we’ve seen is we’ve never seen China proper ever block the signals coming from Yandex Metrica. So it might be worthwhile putting your Google analytics on as well as Yandex Metrica and see if there’s a discrepancy in your analytics in the Chinese market when you’re placing there.

Ben:                             Interesting.

MIcheal:                       Yeah. So the other thing, in China you don’t want a lot of links. You want quality. They want quality and relevancy. So it’s not a quantity game, and a lot of people think in China it’s quantity game. It’s not. On the other thing, and this goes for both Baidu and Naver, is secretly enough they actually look at bounce rate and click through rate. They look at that as a ranking factor, so you want to get people to those sites. That’s where site speed comes up as important, right? So having good site speed, having relevant content, these are things that are going to do the trick in terms of SEO and these markets.

Ben:                             All right, well Michael, I appreciate you coming on the show and telling us about your experience and about how to optimize for Asia. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

MIcheal:                       Thank you. Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Ben:                             It was a pleasure. Okay, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Michael Bonfils, the Global Managing Director at SEM International. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Michael, you could find a link to his Linkedin profile in our show notes. You can also reach him on Twitter where his handle is @MichaelBonfils or you can visit his company’s website, which is

Ben:                             If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you could send me a tweet @BenJShap. Or if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

Ben:                             If you like this podcast and want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcast. Okay, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.