Middle East

Middle East

Search Engine Marketing in the Arab world: Interview with IstiZada

21 Feb 2014



A language is not just an alphabet system, it’s a way to see things, process information and relate with people. This is even truer when it comes to Internet communication. Nowadays, Arab-speaking countries represent a very important – and steadily growing – Internet population, with very deep cultural peculiarities and digital habits, as we showed on our report about Youtube stars in the Middle East.

We interviewed Jordan Boshers: he’s originally from San Diego, CA, and now he runs a Middle East focused digital agency with its main office in Amman, Jordan. He gave us some really interesting insights on Internet usage and Web marketing in the MENA region: here’s the interview.


– Hi Jordan, can you tell us a little about what IstiZada does and what sets you apart from other online marketing agencies in the Middle East?

Sure, IstiZada is a full service Middle East online marketing agency with our main operations office in Amman, Jordan. Our greatest areas of strength would have to be in search engine marketing, search engine optimization, and content marketing. We pride ourselves on having unique insight into how to most effectively get websites to show up on Google across the Middle East.

Many of the other agencies in the region tend to focus on social media which we can do as well, but we see the tremendous value that a company receives when Arabs can find their website on Google in English or Arabic for a variety of high traffic keyword search queries. We regularly write about online marketing as it pertains to the Middle East at the IstiZada blog.




– Why did you choose Jordan as your center of operations for IstiZada?

Other than the fact that Jordan is my name, I chose Jordan for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my business partner, Heath, who runs an enterprise web development agency in Jordan, Tanasuk, helped us get the company off the ground by having Tanasuk incubate IstiZada in their Amman office. Secondly, Jordan is bursting at the seams with online talent.

Though it is a relatively small country some of the most gifted and well educated Arab students come out of Jordanian universities. In fact 75% of the Arabic content online comes from Jordan.


– What do you find most interesting about doing online marketing in the Middle East?

Arabic has been the fastest growing language online for the past 3 years and in 2013 it saw a 21% increase in its share of the internet compared to all other languages. Despite this, only 100 million of the 300 + million Arabic speakers in the world are online. What excites me is the even though we are seeing so much growth in the region online, there is still a massive amount of growth to be seen over the next decade.


Arabic Language Share Growth Online


– How do Arabs search online differently than other cultures?

I was shocked, a few years ago, when I discovered that many Arabs who don’t speak English have a very unique way of using search engines. They start with typing out their query in Arabic and if they don’t find what they are looking for, they then translate it into English and next they copy and paste it back into Google. Finally, they translate the results page and have Google translate each result they click on. This is a lot of work compared to the time it takes for an English speaker to search for something.

This situation mostly stems from the fact that only about 3-4% of content online is in Arabic even though it is the 5th most spoken language in the world (source: Wikipedia).


– How are e-commerce business models progressing in the Middle East?

E-commerce business models are growing rapidly in the Middle East. One thing that surprises many people is that in some countries like Saudi Arabia up to 75% of the e-commerce transactions utilize cash on delivery (COD). COD orders often have 3-5 times the number returns that credit card orders have but given that three quarters of the sales are coming from COD, e-commerce websites need to provide this payment option in the Middle East.




– What are some of the challenges you see facing the Middle East in the area of online marketing?

Many Arabic speaking webmasters are creating great content online but because they lack a basic understanding of search engine optimization their content isn’t getting found. The other side of the coin is that many webmasters have an out of date understanding of SEO and because of this they are using tactics like buying links that will eventually get their websites penalized in Google.

One of our goals at IstiZada is to help companies that operate in Middle East make their content more visible online while helping them adhere to Google’s policies at the same time.


– What is one of the biggest mistakes you see large companies make when they create an Arabic version of their website?

Many multinational companies think it is enough to translate a website into Arabic while leaving other elements of the website the same. This can be a big mistake and can seriously impact website conversion rates.

Since Arabic is a right to left language it often makes sense to take page elements like logos, buttons, etc. that would normally be on the one side of the page in a Latin language and move them to the other side of the page for the Arabic pages. This can help make it easier for Arabic speakers to use your website and respond to calls to action.

American Express is a good example of a website that has a good localised design and layout for Arabic speakers. A simple glimpse to both their US website and their Saudi Arabia website illustrates the difference quite clearly. Here’s the American version:


American Express USA


Versus the layout of the Arabic one:


American Express Arabic


 – Thanks Jordan! 

Guido Ghedin

Guido Ghedin

After his University years between Italy and California, today he deals with Market Research and Digital Scenario Analysis at Young Digitals. You can follow him on Twitter: @guido_ghedin.


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