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Welcome to the mystery of Japanese SEO

Hello! When I volunteered to write a blog post for our careers website, I was thinking of writing something about why I moved to Estonia from Tokyo. But then by following my typical SEO work routine, I checked the search volumes for possible keywords for such a theme, and sadly found almost no volume.

Instead, I found there’s a decent search volume for a keyword ‘japanese seo’, so that’s what I’m going to tell you about in this article.

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SEO results of "Japan SEO"

(The search volumes aren’t ‘juicy’ but good enough)

At Wise, I currently own three blog locales: Japan blog in Japanese, Japan blog in English (targeting expats in Japan), and Malaysia blog in English. Doing SEO in English and in Japanese, I’ve come to notice some specific things about Japanese SEO. So today I want to share them with you.

But you may think, ‘Do you actually have enough experience to say anything about Japanese SEO?’

Quick history of the Japan blog at Wise: it has grown from almost nothing to hundreds of thousands of readers monthly now. 

I’m not going into too much detail, but you can see the growth of JP blog traffic change over time in the chart below.

Bar chart of the growth of japanese blog traffic

Now that I tried to build my credibility to talk about Japanese SEO (which I hope went somewhat successful), let’s get into some Japanese SEO tips. 

Japanese keyword research: Welcome to the knotty puzzle

  • The ‘Space’ problem

Before you go on keyword tools such as Ahrefs or SEMRush, you need to know the most basic yet important fact about the Japanese language. That is;

We don’t have a space between words in Japanese all the time

Let me show you an example. If I want to write ‘moving to the USA’ within a sentence, I’d write アメリカへ移住する (that’s without any space between words).

I know this feels pretty strange for non-Japanese speakers. I’ve seen some of my co-workers write like アメリカ へ 移住 する (with spaces). To me, this sentence with spaces between each word looks pretty weird. It looks as if you were pronouncing each word with a pause.

But, and here comes a big BUT, when we google, we may use spaces between words.

For example, if I want to google about moving to USA, I’d google something like ‘アメリカ 移住’(USA moving or USA immigration). Or if I want to get a picture of cute cats, I’d type ‘猫 かわいい 写真’(cats cute picture).

However, it’s also possible to google without spaces. So I could also google ‘アメリカ移住’(USA immigration) or ‘猫かわいい写真’(cute cats picture).

And for each way of writing keywords, you’ll get different search volumes.

Search results volume

(アメリカ 移住 with a space has 1K, but アメリカ移住 without a space has 350 monthly search volume. And 猫 かわいい 写真 with spaces has 20, while 猫かわいい写真 without spaces has its half search volume)

Some of you may have thought, ‘Well, it seems that a keyword with spaces always has a higher search volume than its counterpart without spaces.’ 

Not really

Let’s see another example: international transfer.

 International transfer seo results ranking

As you can see, this time 海外送金 without spaces has 10 times higher search volume than 海外 送金 with spaces.

This is because 海外送金 exists as a word in Japanese, while in the previous example アメリカ移住 isn’t really a one-word in Japanese. 

It’s fine if what I just said doesn’t make sense. What you can take away at least is that it depends on keywords whether a keyword with spaces or the one without spaces is more popular. If in doubt, you’d better just try both.

  • The ‘Preposition’ problem

Yay another problem! (I just call it a problem for the sake of simplicity, but you can think of it as something challenging yet interesting.)

I realised this problem, when I tried to do a keyword research about ‘moving to [country]’. In English, if you set ‘moving to’ as a seed keyword, you’ll get a list of keywords with country names;

a list of keywords with country names

(These are top keywords in the United Kingdom with ‘moving to’ in them. Pretty interesting result…)

But sadly this technique doesn’t work so well for Japanese.

Let’s go back how I typed ‘moving to USA’ in Japanese – アメリカ 移住 and アメリカ移住. Not sure if you can tell, but there’s no preposition in them.

So when I did the keyword research about ‘moving to [country]’ in Japanese, what I did was just search with a seed keyword ‘移住’ without any preposition.

keyword search results in japanese

(These are top keyword results with a seed keyword 移住 in Japan)

In the top result, I see not-so-relevant keywords for the ‘moving to [country]’ series, such as 移住 仕事(immigration work) and 移住 支援(immigration support) as neither of them is about moving to a certain country or place.

But I also see some relevant keywords, too, like シンガポール 移住(Singapore immigration) and マレーシア 移住(Malaysia immigration). 

Oh, and in the result above, I see a keyword 海外 移住, which means moving abroad, with 2.4k search volume. But I feel this would have a higher search volume without spaces. 

Search result without spaces

海外移住 has more than twice search volume than 海外 移住 (with a space in-between). But you wouldn’t know the real potential of the keyword ‘moving abroad’ unless you also check its keyword without space. 

This shows how major keyword search tools aren’t yet tailored for languages like Japanese, which uses spaces differently than English or some other languages. It’d be ideal if you just type 移住 as a seed keyword, and then you’d get both 海外 移住(with a space) AND 海外移住 (without a space) in the result. But for now, you need to use your own brain.  

URL slugs: Don’t make them in Japanese. 

If you write a blog post in English, you make its article’s slug in English. (Ex. Guide: What is Wise? Slug:/blog/what-is-wise)

The same thing can be said about Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, German… You get the idea.

But when you try to make a slug in Japanese, things get complicated. Like this much %E4%B8%BB%E3%81%AA%E5%A4%96%E8%B2%A8%E4%B8%A1%E6%9B%BF%E6%96%B9%E6%B3%95%E3%81%AE%E6%89%8B%E6%95%B0%E6%96%99%E3%82%92%E6%AF%94%E8%BC%83 complicated.

If you set your slug as /blog/ワイズとは (meaning What is Wise) in Japanese, the URL would look something just like that.

It is because URLs can only contain alphanumeric symbols and some reserved characters and if you put Japanese characters in a URL, it will be encoded into those available characters.

All the characters you can use in a url

So most of my articles in the Wise Japan blog have either English slugs or Japanese slugs written in Roman alphabets. What the latter means is that ワイズとは can be pronounced like wise-towa in Japanese, so I could put that as a slug. 

My personal preference is just to make slugs in English. Because it takes me, a native Japanese speaker, more time to understand wise-towa than what-is-wise. I assume most of Japanese readers find it the same way. 

Either way, let’s just not put slugs in Japanese characters and make searchers’ eyes hurt with random numbers and alphabets.

Two search engines in Japan: Google and Yahoo

Unlike other parts of the world, Yahoo is still a somewhat popular search engine in Japan. About 70% of people use Google and 30% use Yahoo. But does it mean you should optimise your pages for Google and Yahoo?

Frankly speaking, I’ve never tried to rank higher on Yahoo. I can’t say 100% that this is the right approach, but so far I haven’t noticed any problem with it. As Google has many more users around the world, I assume that Google is the more advanced search engine than Yahoo. And if my pages rank well on there, then they’re probably doing well on Yahoo. 

If you’re not like me and want to make sure that your pages are optimised for Yahoo, too, you can use Ahrefs’ keyword explorer for example. As well as Google, Bing, or Yandex (a popular search engine in Russia), you can search keywords’ data for Yahoo.

Key word explorer

Wise SEO blog team

I realised I haven’t talked much about our team. Like all teams at Wise, we get a lot of freedom and autonomy in our work.

For example, I started doing Japanese (for Japan blog) and English SEO (for Japan and Malaysia blogs) because I wanted to, not because I was told by anyone else. At first, the Japan blog in Japanese was the only project I had.

In the summer of 2020, our team lead said ‘There are these locales we’re planning to launch. Just 20 articles as a trial. Does anyone want to try?’

The Malaysia blog in English was one of them. I had felt at that time my skills heavily relied on my Japanese language skill, and I wanted to know if I could do other things. And I volunteered to launch the Malaysia blog. The launch went pretty well and I continued to create more articles after the first 20 trial ones.

The launch of the Japan blog in English was entirely my own initiative. It was decided after I showed my lead a keyword research I did in English for Japan. Its performance so far isn’t as good as Malaysia’s blog, but what I want to focus on here is that our team is flexible and listens to members’ ideas. And if the ideas sound good enough, we go and try them. Even when I present my ideas with some skepticism, I like how encouraging my lead is. Most of the time.

So I talked about Japanese SEO and about our team. Now it’s time to wrap up this article, as I’ve kept postponing the deadline. I hope this article gave you some insights into how SEO works in Japanese and how the Wise blog team works – and ultimately made you feel a little bit Wiser.

If you’d like to feel a lot Wiser, come join us

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