Why do Japanese advertisers suggest Internet-search keywords?


It seems that everywhere you look in Japan these days, printed advertising has Internet-style “search buttons” somewhere in the design, with Japanese text inside a box indicating the term to be searched. And many TV commercials end with a short phrase “such and such de kensaku” (“search on the Internet for such and such”).

These techniques are used to guide people beyond the ads and onto the Internet. Advertisers expect viewers to be interested enough in the product being advertised to search for the given keyword on Yahoo! or Google, on PC or mobile phone — which in turn leads the potential customer to their website.

This style of ad was first introduced a few years ago and has rapidly become an advertising standard. Most printed ads now feature this search-engine box-and-button design.

In Japan, when you want to lure offline customers online, there are four methods that are more popular than the rest.

The first one is pretty basic and standard: display a Web address (URL) and ask people to type it into a browser.

The second technique is to use a QR-code. Under the leadership of cellphone carriers, Japanese mobile phones have had QR code-reading functions since 2003. In 2006, 100 percent of Japanese mobiles came with built-in readers, so it was understood that anyone with a phone could access the information stored in a QR code. Just taking a photo of one with an embedded URL instantly takes you to the website. It is so easy that many people use it.

Providing a very short alternative email address is the third well-used method. Companies can set up short address such as a@xyz.jp to which potential customers send a blank email eliciting an auto-reply with a longer Web address. This works especially well for cellphone-mail addicts, who send and receive hundreds of email on their cellphones daily.

And the search box with a keyword is the last method.

There is no single best way to lure people onto the Web, so real-world ads usually use some, or all, of these techniques.

But why is giving a URL, as is done in advertising elsewhere in the world, not enough?

This has to do with some Japan-specific circumstances.

If the company name on an ad is, say, “Apple,” what is the correct URL? In the United States, if you were to simply type “apple” into the address bar of a browser it is likely to automatically send you to Apple Inc.’s website, as many browsers add the “.com” suffix for you.

In Japan it’s different. Firstly a person has to guess how to spell a word using the Roman alphabet. Japanese advertising obviously uses Japanese text but in almost all cases URLs are in Roman. Even if English is used, this does not necessarily help with the spelling. And if Japanese is written in the Roman alphabet, there could be more than one way of doing so.

Adding to all that, Japanese people need to know whether a URL ends with “.com,” “.jp” or “.co.jp.” In the U.S., established companies secured the “.com” domain in the early days of the Internet. But in Japan, the three domain suffixes compete in popularity, so it is not easy to guess whether the main site for Toyota, for example, is .com, .jp or .co.jp.

Typing Roman letters is also an issue as it is not the most common way to type in Japan. To foreigners it may seem more complex to type Japanese characters, but in fact that is naturally the easiest way for Japanese. Typing a roman-text-based URL into a browser’s address bar is for many Japanese less favorable, and slower, than simply typing a Japanese keyword into a search box. And, as the whole idea of these keywords in ads is that when done properly the company’s website will be at the top of the search result list, this method can be quite effective.

As a result, many companies have taken to this search-keyword idea. However, some companies do not realize how quickly search results can change, and in the worse cases they did not even check whether their site really is the top of the result when the keyword they suggest is searched for. Some advertisers have found their keyword actually sends potential customers to a competitor’s site.

In China, I have noticed many popular sites use numerals as Web addresses, e.g., 163.com. I think this is because Chinese have a similar problem with how to connect with consumers. Numbers are easy to remember and easier to type.

In Japan, the digits in toll-free phone numbers often carry meaning because of the many ways number-words can be pronounced. For example, removal companies may use the numbers “154” which can be pronounced “hikkoshi” (“moving”). But on the Internet, domains using numbers are not so popular in Japan.

Over the past decade, there has been a move towards International Domain Names (IDN), whereby URLs can be written in non-Roman alphabets, such as Arabic and Chinese. More than 20 countries now also have country suffixes that are written in their local script, such as .中国 (China), and Japan may soon join the list. Yet, despite Japanese-character domain names being available they are not popular. For example, even “.com” or “.jp” can be written in Japanese but I have rarely seen Japanese domain names used in advertising. I am not sure having the domain .日本 as well as .jp would change things much.

If even such a basic thing as a website address can be so complex as to have inspired the trend of search keywords, then adding Japanese text to the equation may just create more confusion. If someone were to invent a better way to direct customers to websites than the four methods mentioned here, it would be a game-changer.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English blog on the Japanese web scene. A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.