Facebook can’t get their advertising to speak the right language

Apparently Facebook has gone German. Not the clichéd hairy-armpitted-sun-lounger-thieving German, but the nice Deutsch speaking people that I’m so fond of.

The Guardian picked up on this and ran a nice little article on the subject, even touting a rather nice screenshot. However, if you check the provided screenshot of Facebook in German, you’ll notice an error. The advertising is in English, UK focused and not in German.


As with nearly all advertising online, the language of the ads you see are governed by geo-targeting your IP address, and not by your browser preferred language. Hence, if you live in Cardiff, Wales you get the English language ads even though you might be Welsh speaking. If you live in Barcelona, Spain, you get ads in Spanish even if you are a Catalan speaking Catalonian. If you live in LA, USA, you’ll get advertising in English, whether you are Spanish speaking or not. What I find most interesting about Facebook, is that they themselves run their own advertising platform (with some ads from Microsoft it would appear?), and Facebook actually asks you for your preferred language in your account settings. So what’s the problem?

In the Facebook case it would seem that the developers have just made the same mistakes as all other ad-serving platform providers. In this Guardian example most Germans who live in the UK can speak English rather well. Imagine the estimated 5.5 million Brits living abroad (that’s roughly one in ten British people). A large majority of those 5.5 million Brits who are living in Spain are much less likely to respond to advertising in Spanish on Facebook, or any other website (including Google).

Online Advertising is a funny business, run predominantly by a few very big companies. These ad-serving providers deliver millions of advertising impressions, without fully optimizing the click-through results for those advertisers that pay them a lot of money. To give you a better idea of that, 11.4% of total advertising spend in the UK in 2006 was spent on internet advertising.

The point here is that ad-serving companies are focused on the majority; Therefore, targeting those people who use the internet at home, in their home country, and speak the dominant language of that country.

However, I believe that the minority are larger than the ad-servers have considered. For example, there are more Catalan speakers (9.1 million) in the world than speakers of Norwegian (4.7 million). There are 45 million people living in America who do not speak English at home (and over 14% of the US population is Hispanic). In our increasingly shrinking and interconnected world, immigration and travel is growing steadily.

Advertisers are forgetting some of their most profile targets, those businessmen with disposable cash. Whenever they travel abroad, they won’t be seeing any ads targeting them correctly.

The best example of how ad-servers have screwed up their technology, is that in the USA, 82% of the country speaks English as a first language. Hence the other 18% are being missed out in terms of effective, targeted advertising. Now, if I come to you, the advertiser, and say, “I can show your ad to a great many people here in the USA, but 18% probably won’t understand it, because they don’t speak English as a first language, hence can you make sure the ad isn’t too high brow or witty”, do you think you’d be happy with that?

Whilst the advertisers remain blissfully unaware of this fact, the arrogant ad-serving platform providers will not be addressing the issue. If Yahoo really wanted to dent Google’s market share of online advertising, they should consider fixing this before Google does and marketing this technology advantage.