Once Were Vikings: Search Marketing In The Nordics

And the winner of this year’s European Search Personality award is… Kristjan Mar Hauksson!

With Kristjan being from Iceland, it seems the time is due for a focus on the Nordics. Those who know the region may be thinking fjords, mountains, forests, lakes, volcanoes, kings and castles. Or perhaps you’re thinking about small search volumes, higher than average CPCs (compared to other European markets), and high conversion rates?

Ever since I expatriated to France, I have been observing with interest the search marketing landscape in my home country of Denmark and its Nordic neighbours. And I had great opportunities to further my understanding recently, both as Chair of SMX Stockholm last year and while attending the RIMC conferences in Iceland earlier this year.

Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark

Viking Search Marketers
Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark

The Nordic market primarily consists of 5 countries in Northern Europe: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Sweden is the largest, with approximately 9 million inhabitants; Denmark, Norway and Finland have approximately 5 million inhabitants each. In total, the Nordic countries boast around 25 million inhabitants.

(Note: Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Åland Islands are often counted among the Nordic countries as well; however, they are not specifically included in any of this article’s data.)

Attractive, But Difficult

Being highly digital economies with some of the world’s highest incomes per capita, you would expect the Nordic region to appear high on international digital marketers’ priority lists.

In fact, according to a recent report published by PostNord, E-commerce in the Nordics 2013, over 14 million Nordic consumers bought goods online in 2012 (with over 1/3 doing so at least once per month) to the tune of around €10.9 billion. This means that the region comes in on a European top 4 if taken as one single entity.

But when you start addressing the region as a single unit, you run into some difficulty. Three of the countries are part of the European Union, but the other two are not. Some of the languages appear very similar, but they are not the same. Some have a land connection between them and some don’t. Yes, they all once were Vikings – but can you really consider this as one region?

In online marketing, you will deal with 5 different languages and a need for localised messaging, as users are demanding and online behaviour is sophisticated.

As Kasper Hove, an ex-Googler now heading search at the Nordic flight booking engine Momondo, explained during a presentation at SMX Stockholm 2013:

An ecommerce site in Norway with a customer service number in Denmark will get a much lower conversion than a site with a local Norwegian phone number.

Within Momondo they have organised their online marketing department in a centralised hub where junior “country managers” (natives of each individual country) have been trained to manage the most important acquisition channel, Paid Search, and then evolve to manage more channels and have a say on the localised country sites.

Kristjan Hauksson, who runs a cross-Nordic agency, added his vision to this in an email to me:

However similar they may seem, the languages are not the same. Written Norwegian and Danish appear similar but are in reality much further from each other than you might expect. Finland is then a very different beast, as their language is not related to the other Nordic Languages whatsoever.

In The Nordics, Everybody Speaks English… Right?

Oh yes, the Nordic populations pretty much all speak English — as their second language. And the reason for it is pretty much Hollywood. See the cost of dubbing a movie is quite high so for small populations you will simply subtitle films — at least that was what my childhood looked like.

Nowadays the same thing is happening in video games. The English language is everywhere. According to a report released by the European Commission, “Europeans and their Languages,” an estimated 86% Danes and Swedes speak English, and around 70% of Finns do.

Source: Special Eurobarometer 386 / Wave EB 77 . 1 Specia l Eurobarometer

Source: Eurobarometer 386

So here is a quick win, right? Well, perhaps not….

Do They Also Search In English?

With such a high language proficiency, perhaps searches are done in English? For many years that was the case for myself — I would look for information in English and naturally would search with English keywords.

But then, something happened. A couple of years ago, Google decided that people based in France with a French language browser should be served French search results. Today, it is difficult accessing the British or American search index, even using English search terms. I am served French results only, and then given suggestions to correct my wrong spelling. The same goes for the Nordic countries.

A further complication is the high penetration of English words into the Nordic languages: computer, printer, internet, email, search marketing, and SEO are all more or less fully absorbed into the current Nordic languages. So the search query may look English, but it is in fact Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, etc.

Consider this: If using the wrong country code for a customer service number puts consumers off, how do you think speaking to them in the wrong language will do for you? If you do not have a very powerful brand, an unbeatable price, or an outstanding service offering, you might not be able to outcompete a local (or localised) competitor if your site is in English.

I have run into the question many times in Europe: “Should I translate my website, my ads?” The answer is yes.

“But that’s expensive! Maybe I can do that once I have some revenue!” That certainly looks better in a business plan, but could be harmful for your brand.

The question you really need to know the answer to is this: “Is there demand for what I sell?” You could easily reach the conclusion that there is no market because you wasted all your advertising on a message that did not come through.

Organic Search In The Nordics

Looking to organic search, surprisingly, the Nordic markets differ from the English-speaking markets also. Marcus Tober of SearchMetrics showed evidence at last year’s SMX Stockholm of a different ranking pattern in Google than what they published for the US market.

Interestingly, ranking factors seemed to reflect an earlier stage of the algorithm where Anchor Text in links are still important, and where keywords in the domain name have do not have reduced importance. In Stockholm, I heard someone whisper, “…probably because nobody speaks Swedish in the Search quality team.”

A special practice has been seen in the region, namely that of building massive amounts of backlinks from websites in other languages and in other locations. Risky business. Do not try this at home!

This is perhaps a reaction from local players to their international competitors. These large competitors often launch local websites with powerful backlinks profiles already in place (usually from their other websites), driving good ranking almost from day one.

Local competitors still seem to have a hard time ranking against major US players who have launched localised sites, despite a much stronger local popularity. A flaw in the algorithm? Something else to strike the SERPs in coming months, perhaps? Maybe an International Penguin?

It is in part a consequence of the entire region looking to the US. With the exception of some local players like Finn.no in Norway and Jubii.dk in Denmark, the Googles, Facebooks Ebays and Twitters have little local competition. Google’s market share throughout the region is 85% or higher and Facebook penetration so high it is the number 1 media in the region reaching an audience of 13 million people (source: Facebook internal data based on inferred and reported date, August 2013 [presented at SMX Stockholm 2013]).

How You Can Address The Nordics Efficiently

According to Kevin Gibbons, who is working across the region from the UK, a “hub and spoke” model for international content marketing, rolled-out across the region, has proven successful for his company  (Blueglass UK) and their clients.

In recent projects, Blueglass UK has built a unique data set of user behaviour in the tourism segment and then built multiple localised versions of the content before distribution within each market. As he noted during a presentation at SMX Stockholm 2013:

It is important to synchronize the roll-out in the Nordic markets as there can be an information overlap between the countries as language, culture and media behaviour are quite similar.

In an email to me, Magnus Nilsson of Redperformance in Norway gave similar advice:

Consider the countries as separate markets. Of course with regards to language, but also do your homework regarding differences in market maturity of online shopping, risk aversion, and for example how important (or not) discounts may be.

Final Thoughts

The Nordic markets present an attractive opportunity for online marketers willing to make an investment in the region.

These countries have many common characteristics — but if you don’t address them individually, you will not reap the benefits of your investment. The ideal approach when entering that market seems to be the establishment of a Nordic hub with natives from each country gathered into one team, allowing for a centralised yet local management of the region.

Let’s round it off with a word from Kristjan: “Research, research, research, and do not generalize your findings!”