How do expats use online search?

Millions of people live and work as ‘expats’ away from their home country – some just for a few years, others stay for decades and some never return. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research[1] more than 5.6 million British people choose to live abroad, and more than 244 million are international migrants[2].

We wanted to find out how expats and people who live and work between countries search online. To help better understand their search behaviour we polled our Experts Overseas a number of whom move between countries. The insights here reveal how they use both localised and native search engines, depending on what they are looking for.

Google dominates, but we like to ‘go local’

Our survey reached out to people living in 31 countries – statistics represented here demonstrate, if it were needed, the truly global reach of Google which remains the dominant resource (used by almost 95% of those questioned).

Looking in more detail we discovered that half of the people we questioned use a mixture of local and native search, happily switching between the two. There are also significant numbers (19%) who when living abroad solely adopt the local search option, not ever specifying the national search of their home country. So, for example, a French person living in Germany will use, not their home country’s

1                                                                                                        Source: Oban International survey May 2016

It is interesting to see why this might be; perhaps it’s related to how long they have been a resident and their language skills? If it were related to language skills we might, for example, expect to see a larger percentage of Spanish speakers opting to use localised search if they had moved to a Spanish speaking country in South America, for example.

When local wins

Looking at local search it’s clear that most people (68.5%) use it for location specific searches, such as wanting to find a restaurant or local entertainment. However, it’s interesting to note that they will switch to their native search for more general searches, such as news and information gathering. This might be because they are looking for trusted and familiar sources with which they can culturally identify.

2                                                                                                         Source: Oban International survey May 2016

Worldwide, online search engines are now considered more trustworthy sources than traditional media of news and information.

It’s also really worth noting that users are actually happy to switch between the two options, regardless of any initial preference for local or native search: more than half of those asked would switch if they weren’t getting relevant results.

What does this mean for SEO/ Search advertising?

This review is relevant not just for businesses looking to target expats but for anyone who has a travelling /mobile audience. Truly understanding search behaviour when people are on the move will allow businesses to develop better targeting and ultimately provide service for customers.

Imagine a scenario for a travel insurer where a buyer researches insurance from their home country, travels and then needs to access contact or support information online. Can the brand be found in both the buyer’s home and travel destination search engine?

Similarly, if you are a producer of travel goods then the expectation will be for your customers to find you online for support while in any corner of the world. This means for organic search, websites need well planned domain structures that can be correctly geo-targeted to appear in the correct search engine; for paid media advertising, all campaigns should consider a wider, global audience and not be solely focused on visibility in countries or cities where your products are on sale.

Mobile and Voice Search – an increasingly mobile and global population

There’s been a notable increase in mobile search advertising buoyed by the global popularity of powerful internet enabled phones; by 2019 it’s predicted that more than 80% of handsets will be ‘smartphones’.

It’s also been 12 months since Google announced “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan[3]”. So, with so much more search likely to be conducted on mobile, it’s essential to understand how mobile search preferences change as we switch country.

What about holidaymakers? In 2015 the European Parliament voted to scrap mobile roaming charges from mid-2017; we’ll soon be as relaxed about using mobile search from a bar in Paris as we are a bistro in Bermondsey. But how does mobile search localise? Do we switch to local mobile search engines when abroad and on our mobile phones?

Looking to the future, voice search is arguably the hottest topic of the moment – 28% of users who have adopted voice search do so because they find it a more accurate way of searching,[4] so it’s also worth considering why people may use voice search between countries and how this contributes to SEO strategy.






[2] GlobalWebIndex; September 2015; 1,800




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