As Arabic content continues to rise, how can Middle Eastern startups get their brands on top of a Google search? We sit with Mazen Aloul, CEO of SEO at Dubai's pioneering WebQuest.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been developing as a discipline ever since the world’s very first search engine launched. It’s a critically necessary skill for any entrepreneurial or business-minded person; when building a brand, visibility is key. As stated by SEO analytics site Moz, first page search results on Google get 71 percent of clicks, and the top search result earns over 30 percent of clicks. It really does pay to be on top.
Although SEO is a constantly-expanding field in English, it doesn't go the same way in Arabic. According to Internet World Stats in 2016, Arabic is the fourth most-used language on the internet - behind English, Chinese, and Spanish - despite Arabic speakers only comprise 4.7 percent of total internet users. In fact, the usage of Arabic on the internet increased a whopping 2,501 percent from 2001 to 2011. As Arabic content increases, how are brands staying on top of the game? We sit down with Mazen Aloul, founder of Dubai-based search engine optimization agency WebQuest SEO - and a pioneer in Arabic SEO - to find out how a novice can dive into the pool without drowning.
How did you get into a career in SEO?
I fell into it. I’ve been out in Dubai for 15 years and this is my third business. My background is in computer science and programming, I used to be a technical instructor teaching programming and networking, and that included coaching Emirati youth in the Programming Olympics, which takes place every year. So for 8 years, I was the coach of the UAE youth programming team and we went to the Programming Olympics from 2005 until 2009.
And how did you start your own business?
I ran the family business until 2013 from the Dubai office, mainly within the financial market. In 2013 I decided to learn something new, and that’s when I decided to join Baraka Advisors [a social entrepreneurship consulting network] as a communications consultant. The exposure I got was excellent, moving from my tech and finance background into communications opened up a lot of doors I hadn’t considered before. After working with Baraka, I decided to specialize in SEO. I made that decision around the end of 2014. I did a lot of research, and identified gaps in quality SEO supplying region-wide.
How do you begin analyzing the SEO needs of your clients?
The approach I take with clients is very ground-up. It’s about sitting and listening to what the client wants, and aligning it with their business objectives and their strategy. So if you were to take business strategy goals and align them with SEO strategies, there would be four categories:
Goal 1: Lead generation. Around 70 percent of our business is centered on this goal. Our clients are mostly local businesses. The objective is to generate leads or interest in a company through their online presence. So these are usually businesses that have a physical presence like dentists, doctors, lawyers, PR agencies, and so forth.
Goal 2: To sell online, directly. This is where e-commerce sites come in. usually the target region is larger than the first category. Usually region or worldwide based. The objective is to sell. They have a strong logistic backend and a warehouse for shipping.
Goal 3: Websites that want to capture traffic. These are mainly publications like magazines and journals. The objective is to capture as much traffic as possible to sell advertising space. This is usually on a regional scale, and all the websites I’ve worked with work across the region.
Goal 4: Online reputation management. When you google someone’s business name, you get negative links about them. These links cannot be removed, so you have to generate positive content and have those positive results outrank the negative ones.
We need to properly understand what the business objective is, and come up with a strategy that would help with their online presence.
How does specializing in the Middle East differ from typical SEO best practices?
The fundamentals are the same, but what is growing more in the Middle East is regional online searching, especially with the younger demographic, so countries with large, young, Arabic speaking populations are where you see the change happening. Just bringing in Arabic SEO skills and building Arabic-language websites and content is where things have started to change. I still haven’t seen that happen for certain local businesses, because the target audience is well versed in English, but with publications and e-commerce, there’s definitely increased interest in Arabic SEO specialization.
Arabs make up 5 percent of the internet population, but less than 1 percent of content is in Arabic.
Were there regional or linguistic struggles you’ve had specializing in SEO in MENA?
When it comes to search engines, Google represents the biggest market share, about 95 percent in the Middle East; and Google has become more advanced in understanding the linguistics behind Arabic. As a language, it’s towards the bottom in terms of development and research. It’s complex and has a lot of dialects. We try to tailor content to the region. What we mainly do is to write in proper Arabic, Fus7a, because it’s easily transferable between regions as opposed to local dialects.
Does using Fus7a exclude people who might only be searching using a regional dialect?
We haven’t seen using Fus7a alienate clients in any of our accounts yet. We haven’t built content in the local dialect - it would force us to duplicate a lot of things and the cost to the client would be very high.
Is there ever a reason to use Romanized Arabic with numbers in your web copy?
Typing in the Arabic alphabet works best so far; it works well in proper Arabic. The tricky part in implementing the homepage SEO elements - the most obvious one - is that Arabic is written from right to left. For example, when you look at the URL of a site in English, you have a subdirectory structure that reads as website.com/main/subdirectory. But if you do it in Arabic, what actually shows up is website.com/subdirectory/main, so it’s reversed. Visually it can look confusing when you’re used to the English structure.
There’s not a lot of data out there on search engine performance of Romanized Arabic versus the Arabic alphabet. Arabs make up 5 percent of the internet population, but with regard to internet content, Arabic-language content is a very small fraction of that number. Less than 1 percent of the content on the internet is Arabic. There’s a huge gap in supply of Arabic content on the web, and there’s a serious lack of quality Arabic content on the internet. You get a lot of forums and such coming up in search results. If you were to look at quality Arabic content, it would be even a fraction of that. It’s wide open what you can do when it comes to online Arabic presence. The whole sector is very, very young, and in comparison to other languages, we’re very far behind in terms of presence on the internet.
So what are your top five tips for beginners; how can a novice get off the ground with SEO?
First, remove or optimize any item that slows down your site. One of the most critical factors for SEO is page speed. A slow page will frustrate and disrupt the user experience and may end up discouraging customers from buying your product or service. According to Strange Loop, a 1-second delay in page load time can generate a 7 percent loss in conversions. Users also associate a slow website with an untrustworthy site. So get rid of any non-essential elements slowing down your site. Depending on your platform, consider deactivating plugins you may have installed but aren't using or declutter your sidebar by removing any nonessential widgets. You'd be surprised how much faster these simple changes will make your site.
Second, link to other relevant websites and have them link to you. We know what you’re thinking, "won't linking to other sites lead people away from my website?" Technically yes, but link building is a fundamental aspect of an intelligent SEO strategy. When you are a leader in your industry, developing valuable content and linking to authentic blogs, you’ll find that more readers will naturally link to your site. This is when you will reap the rewards of effective link building. Be sure to carefully consider your options though, linking only to trustworthy and reputable sites. The last thing you want to do is lead your user to an unreliable or unsafe site!
When it comes to keywords and phrases, write for humans first and search engines second.
Third, have web analytics in place at the start. After clearly defining your SEO goals, you need software to track what’s working (and what’s not working). Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and other web analytics software help to track your SEO success. Additionally, tools like CrazyEgg track where your visitors are clicking, and how they navigate away from your site. Ultimately, the more you know about your user the more you can adapt your site to their likeability.
Fourth, when it comes to keywords and phrases, write for humans first and search engines second. Keywords are no longer the sole factor to drive search results. Although keywords and long tail phrases are still important to SEO strategy, these words must be used in a thoughtful, engaging and relevant manner. Think about the user’s intent when conducting your keyword research, it's very common for someone to want to rank for the main keyword, but ask yourself “is someone running this search really looking for what I have to offer?”. As you develop your content, the focus should remain on how your visitor will engage with your product or service. This will naturally increase site traffic.
Fifth, don't forget the meta descriptions. According to one of the leading digital marketers out there, Neil Patel, "One of the most important SEO tips that most people neglect is the well-crafted meta description." So be sure to create unique and relevant meta descriptions for every page. Meta descriptions are the few sentences you read on a search engine results page, and they can make a big difference when it comes to people clicking on your link versus others.
Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
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