Bienvenue En France: How To Do Search Marketing With A French Flavor

A while back, Rand Fishkin of Moz visited Paris for the SMX conference held there. One of the things he mentioned to me was how surprised he was at some of the misconceptions that exist. “Paris doesn’t live up to any of its stereotypes,” he said. “There’s dog crap on the streets. Service folks, even at busy restaurants, are incredibly friendly.”

A few weeks prior, I had made a presentation at the International Search Summit in London entitled, “Excuse my French” — not that I think I have anything to excuse my wife for, nor my friends or colleagues in Paris – more as an attempt to illustrate the immense cultural gap between two countries.

Most French actually don’t understand the expression and most anglophones don’t really consider how rude it really is. “Excuse my French” is described in Wikipedia as: « … a common English language phrase ostensibly disguising profanity as French. ». Woo, that hurt…

I hope I didn’t let out a secret that will cause sabotage on the Eurotunnel or cause someone to fly a drone into the Big Ben (the French are way above sacrificing themselves and pretty advanced engineers)!

Search Marketing In France

So, what does all this have to do with Search Marketing? Well, everything. We are deep into keywords and cultural frameworks. Understanding the words is not enough — you need context.

GDP, ecommerce & online population in France, Germany, United Kingdom

Market characteristics for France: 2nd largest population in the EU, 5th GDP
in the world, but a little lazy in e-commerce.
Image copyright Aznos

I believe the French market is probably a difficult one for search marketers to access from the outside. I am working within that market and it can be a challenge to understand a context you are in the midst of.

But then, I believe I have a unique perspective. As a Dane, I come from outside of the market — but I have lived for many years in France, and I have had the chance to manage Search Marketing at the European level for clients and agencies. This is what inspired me to write this article.

Why Is The French Market So Difficult?

I have asked this question to a number of International Search Marketers with experience doing Search in France, and they have agreed to share their thoughts.

Language Issues

a comma is not a comma

Image copyright Aznos


The first thing that comes to mind are the challenges with character set and accents. See, in French, you can put four different accents on an “e”:

  • é
  • è
  • ê
  • ë

An E is not an E.

But really, character sets and accents are things you will sort out once and for all when you launch a website or build a campaign. And these days, websites, content management systems and keyword-based advertising have now come around managing this challenge quite well.

Not like in the old days when SEO copy writing would need inclusion of both singular and plural versions and then accentuated and non-accentuated versions in the same phrase. That was not so funny.

So, we are past the days when accents would be a major obstacle. Language-wise, French is not such a big challenge anymore; it is a major world language, spoken by 200 million people . It is also an attractive language with a beautiful ring to it. The English language has even borrowed many words from French. All of the words in the word cloud below are French words used in English, and you probably know them all.

French words in English

Image copyright Aznos

However, what seems to be a challenge in paid search copy writing today is getting the message across. As Global Head of Search at Cheapflight, Shahid Awan, puts it: “The French language is quite complex, and time spent on ad copy is critical. It is a lot more difficult to come up with short and catchy ad text — words are long and there isn’t any way to get words shorter like in the UK.”

Translation Issues

Most of the people I have interviewed agree that you can’t simply translate search campaigns, whether Paid Search or SEO, into French. This is certainly true of automatic translation, but it applies to using translators as well. David Henry of Monster UK puts it like this, “In my experience, you can’t translate a campaign from another market. You can translate and modify a search strategy, but you need a local partner to help bring it to life.”

Alan Boughen, Global Head of Search at Havas, agrees, “Local is best to cope with language nuances. But it can be done with native speakers from another country e.g., French Canadians.”

When you are using a local partner or have the teams in house, you don’t need to worry so much about the quality of your local version anymore: keyword selection, accents, calls to action, character set — all set.

Cultural Mindset

GMT + 1

Image copyright Aznos

David Towers of MEC addresses the question of the mind set, “Working with French clients while maintaining an Anglo-Saxon mindset can be challenging!”

Marc Poirier of Acquisio, who set up his company’s local operation in France, gives a bit more nuance to this, “From my experience, doing business in France is a very lengthy process, and the amount of time that passes from the initial “let’s make a deal” to the closing of a contract is much longer (and somewhat more painful) than it is here in America.”

I have actually seen American companies try to launch in the French market in the past only to give up a few years later, so what Marc explains is no surprise. The process is somewhat lengthy and with quite some paperwork before getting to an operational deal. Perhaps, in a French mindset, working your way through the process is just as important as finalising a deal.

So Why Should We Care About The French Market?

Well, the French search market is really just playing hard to get. It is a very attractive market. The French economy was the 5th biggest GDP in the world in 2011. Online penetration is high, and France represent the 2nd biggest online population in the EU, behind Germany but ahead of the United Kingdom.

From the figures, the French do significantly fewer searches per month than the British, and e-commerce is quite far behind. This in turn may be one of the reasons why click prices in paid search seem to be lower than in the UK.

CPC & Searches in France, Germany, UK

Image copyright Aznos

The result is a lower cost-per-click. Now, let us not get carried away — if the CPC is lower in France than in the UK but on the other hand the CVR is higher in the UK, your ROI is not going to be mechanically better, and your entire online marketing approach will have to be different.

In summary, the French search market is probably a top destination to think of in International campaigns. A strong economy despite the present downturn, a big population, pretty well connected, using just one language, and where Search Advertising is still cheaper than in certain other markets. The challenge you are facing is to do business with the locals; but hey, to cite Marc Poirier again, “Business in France often revolves around fantastic meals and a few drinks, which I found to be quite pleasant.”

Bon appétit!

Everything you need to know about Search Marketing in France

Image copyright Aznos