Japanese SEM offers numerous benefits to brands looking to get their message, product, or service in front of potential customers in Japan.

Depending on your setup it’s also possible to target specific user demographics within the various stages of your funnel making SEM a versatile tool for your digital marketing needs.

In this article we will look at the reasons investing in Japanese SEM can make a lot of sense for your overall strategy for Japan as well as some things you should keep in mind when implementing a Japanese SEM strategy.



SEM Options in Japan

The most popular advertising platform for search engine marketing in Japan is Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords). Google Ads mainly operates on a PPC (pay-per-click) model for its various ad formats, which include text, display, and shopping ads.

Besides Google Ads, Yahoo! JAPAN also offers a platform—Yahoo! Ads—for running SEM advertisements in Japan that shares many of the same features as Google Ads. However, there are a few things you should understand about Yahoo! Ads. First, Yahoo relies on Google to provide its search results which makes for little to no variation in SERPs (search engine results pages). Second, Yahoo! JAPAN’s share of the paid search market in Japan has drastically decreased to only around 19% in recent years.


search engine market share japan

Data source: Statcounter


Regardless of the platform though, the underlying principles behind search engine marketing does not change, and in the next section we will highlight some of the main advantages to using SEM as part of your digital strategy for Japan.


Reasons To Use Japanese SEM

There are a number of scenarios and situations where you will benefit from Japanese SEM.


Your Site is New

If your brand’s Japanese website is newly created then chances are high that you can’t rely on organic results to drive traffic and sales. Because alternative methods of increasing traffic, such as search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing, are better suited for a long-term digital strategy, SEM is a great way to help get consistent traffic to your site in the earliest stages of your Japanese market entry.


Fewer Organic Search Results

With ads being such a huge source of revenue for search engines these days the number of organic search results displayed per page are gradually decreasing. In some instances organic search results have decreased from 10 per page to 7 per page. Meanwhile, the number of ads per page has grown to cover more real estate especially at the top of each page. With SEM not only can you get your ads placed above organic search engine results but depending on your performance and bids you may also find yourself at the top of the coveted, first page results. Because relatively few users venture past the first page of search results, the impact on traffic and conversions can be pronounced.


Japanese SEM Supports Other Marketing Efforts

While the main objective for SEM is driving sales, the data gathered from your campaigns can also help improve your other marketing activities. For example, keyword data can help you understand search intent based on queries people used. This can be used to inform ideas on new content for content marketing efforts to boost organic traffic. The best marketing campaigns utilize multiple channels. When planned and implemented correctly each channel you add will further enhance your other digital marketing efforts.


Japanese SEM is Conversion-Focused

Compared to organic search and traffic from social media, SEM is far more conversion-focused. Organic visitors can potentially start out on any page of your website, based on their search query. With SEM, on the other hand, you have far more control over what page visitors first see making it possible to optimize these pages for conversions. Social Media is also less conversion-oriented and is typically more useful for branding purposes as the direct impact on sales is harder to quantify. This partially comes down to the different nature between channels. As people are actively looking for something when they conduct a search, versus passively perusing on a social media platform, chances are they are closer to a purchase decision, hence the value in using SEM ads.


Things to Keep in Mind When Implementing a Japanese SEM Strategy

In the previous section we outlined reasons why you need Japanese SEM. In this section we will go over things to keep in mind when implementing your Japanese SEM strategy.


Japanese woman using smartphone


Japanese Do Not Search in English

The most important aspect of conducting SEM campaigns in Japan is that they must be localized into Japanese because 99% of Japanese are monolingual. English, or any other language for that matter, is not widely used or understood here. In other words, Japanese people do not conduct searches in any other language besides Japanese, which makes localization efforts essential to any SEM campaign in Japan.

If you want to reach Japanese customers in general then your site, your ads, your social media profiles, your product listings, and any other type of marketing materials or touchpoints need to be in Japanese as a rule. Running English-language SEM ads won’t be effective if you’re targeting Japanese customers, and is essentially a waste of both your time and advertising budget.


Japanese SEM Keyword Lists are Longer

Written Japanese makes use of 3 scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji, that are all used together in everyday writing. The implications this has on Japanese SEM is that in some cases you will have at minimum 3x, if not 4x—when including Latin characters—the number of keywords you would in other languages.

NOTE: These additional keywords can also have huge implications for your site from a Japanese SEO and content marketing perspective as well!


hiragana a

Above: An example of a hiragana character


Because of the need to cover the various written scripts, it follows that keyword research is a larger task for Japanese SEM. As building out your keyword list is such an important first step to any SEM campaign, it’s critical that you use a native speaker, instead of a machine translation, as actual usage can be quite different from the results that a machine spits out. Without knowing the most commonly used words you could end up missing out on important keywords or, even worse, unnecessarily wasting money bidding on keywords that aren’t actually suited for your campaigns.

To illustrate these two concepts, different scripts and the importance of native speakers, let’s consider the word for “mobile phone” in Japanese: 携帯電話 (keitaidenwa) literally “portable phone.” Simple enough, right? However, the word 携帯 (keitai), omitting the characters/word for “phone” 電話 (denwa), is often used by itself to refer to a mobile phone–just like we might say “call my cell” in English. Furthermore, while the word 携帯 (keitai) is usually written in kanji, it can just as easily be written in hiragana (けいたい) or katakana (ケイタイ), which are both phonetic scripts. Finally, we add to this the fact that the word for smartphone, which previously didn’t exist, has entered the Japanese lexicon as スマートフォーン (sumātohōn), and it too has a shorter version スマホ (sumaho), that needs to be covered.

Japanese is a highly contextual language and as a result knowing what vocabulary to use, and when to use them is something that machine translations cannot currently do. This is why it’s crucial to rely on someone with knowledge of the language to setup and manage your Japanese SEM account.


Fewer Characters Makes Good Copywriting Essential

Another aspect of the difficulty in doing SEM in Japanese has to do with character-width. In addition to the various written scripts used in Japanese, when dealing with digital text you also have to consider the differences in size between English and Japanese characters.

SEM text ads utilize full-width characters for Japanese. English letters, on the other hand, are considered half-width characters. For example, while a text ad’s first headline may allow you to write 30 characters in English, in Japanese, you are limited to 15 characters. This can feel quite restricting.

While you may have heard that Japanese scripts, like kanji, can convey more information in fewer characters than English, if the character-width is different that may very well not be the case at all.

Basically, what you need to understand is that with limited characters, because of differences in character-width, it is arguably more difficult to write Japanese text ads. There are also times when you have to get creative, especially if your product or service has a long name when converted into Japanese. This is why copywriting skills are so essential for Japanese SEM text ads.


The Japanese Market is Competitive

Few markets lack competition these days, but in terms of intensity, Japan tends to be a very competitive market for all industries. Because of how competitive the Japanese market is, it’s important to not only closely monitor the performance of your ads, but also to analyze exactly what your competition is up to.

Monitoring your SEM management dashboard is only one part of proper SEM. Ongoing optimization in response to changing conditions and situations outside of the ads platform (i.e. market news, competitor’s websites or social media profiles) is also critical to success. However, this crucial element is often ignored by non-Japanese because the language barrier makes this additional diligence that much harder.


What Device Do Your Customers Use?

Another item which can have an impact on the performance of your Japanese SEM is the device your audience uses. This can actually vary significantly from country to country. Not only is there the issue of mobile vs desktop to consider, but also the operating system in question. When it comes to mobile browsing, differences may be pronounced between iOS and Android users. Both of these issues should be taken into consideration when planning and designing your campaigns for a Japanese audience.


Don’t Forget About Display Ads and Shopping Ads

While the most well-known format for SEM ads are text ads, display ads are also important to consider for your Japanese SEM campaign. In Japan display ads are popular as a means for building brand awareness, however, display ads can also be used in tandem with SEM to boost sales through retargeting.

Shopping ads are another option that ecommerce brands, in particular, may choose to implement to better showcase their products to prospective Japanese customers. Although using different types of ads will add another layer of complexity to designing your Japanese SEM campaign, other ad formats can help provide additional boosts to your account’s performance.


Japanese SEM shopping ads for nike


Japanese SEM Metrics to Monitor

Monitoring key metrics is a universal truth when it comes to SEM. However, when dealing with a totally different market, you may find that you have to look at additional metrics besides the ones you usually focus on. As an example, even if you are usually concerned with maintaining a certain CPC (cost-per-clik) and CPC for your target keywords in Japan are lower than your home market, the CPA (cost-per-acquisition) may be higher than other markets. In this case, re-evaluating your KPIs and expectations based on the market situation would be pertinent, as you may need to adjust your strategy to accommodate.


Japanese SEM is One Component

Sometimes you may actually have a well-designed Japanese SEM campaign, but it simply isn’t performing. Low Quality Scores within your Google Ads account are a perfect example of this kind of thing. Rather than abandon your SEM efforts or writing them off as ineffective, you should look for other areas of your digital strategy which may be preventing your ads from performing. Without knowledge of how the various components of digital strategy work together, and how SEM fits in and contributes to your overall marketing plan, it can be difficult to identify and solve the actual issue though. At Plus Alpha Digital our expertise is not limited to Google Ads, and we are able to assist with issues related to conversion rate optimization as well.


Yahoo! JAPAN

Yahoo! JAPAN was once a much more prominent player in the Japanese SEM market, but its influence has waned. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Yahoo has continued to lose market share in the search engine market in Japan over the years. That being said, some brands may still be interested in pursuing Yahoo Ads as part of their Japanese SEM strategy, but lack familiarity with the service.

Yahoo offers two main products as part of their SEM platform: Search Ads and Display Ads (YDN). These are essentially the same as Google’s Search Ads and Display Network (GDN) Ads.

However, one important difference to keep in mind is that Yahoo! JAPAN is a portal site, as opposed to a straightforward search engine. One look at the homepage of Yahoo versus Google and the differences should be clear.


yahoo japan homepage screenshotYahoo! JAPAN homepage


google japan homepage screenshot

Google (Japan) homepage


Notice the difference in clickable links and white space between the two?

The biggest takeaway when it comes to understanding Yahoo! JAPAN is that while Japanese may rely on Yahoo for its services, such as the extremely popular Yahoo! News, when it comes to anything search-related, like looking up a product or brand, they may instead prefer to use Google.

Ultimately, whether or not to include Yahoo as part of your Japanese SEM campaigns has become a very personal decision. Given its current market share, some brands do and some brands don’t choose to include Yahoo Ads in their SEM strategy. The decision really depends on your objectives and goals for the Japanese market.


Bottom Line

SEM is still an essential component of a digital strategy to drive traffic and sales in Japan.

Encompassing formats like paid search, display, and shopping ads, SEM offers brands a number of options to market their products and services to potential customers no matter where they are in the customer journey.

As the Japanese ecommerce marketplace continues to grow in size and more brands look to online sales to drive their business, however, it follows suit that competition inevitably has heated up in the digital advertising space. This means that greater expertise is needed to run successful campaigns that can optimize for performance.

Additionally, developing an appropriate paid advertising strategy that includes SEM is even more important than ever as organic reach has decreased and brands’ owned assets are at the mercy of constant changes to algorithms from search engines and major social media platforms alike.

SEM continues to be a popular choice for digital marketers in Japan because of its status as a proven commodity in terms of delivering immediate traffic from targeted demographics with reliable analytics.

The two biggest platforms when it comes to Japanese SEM are Google and Yahoo! Japan, but the market share is quite unequal between the two. As a result, properly planning your Japanese SEM strategy boils down to understanding how best to achieve your brand’s objectives and goals within the Japanese market.

At Plus Alpha Digital we design Japanese SEM campaigns for non-Japanese brands who need a partner they can trust. If you are interested in leveraging Japanese SEM to grow your business contact us to see how we can help.


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Categories: Marketing