Japanese Advertising: Crucial Factors to Consider for Effective Japanese SEM

Japanese mobile-use is particularly high during train commutes to and from work, creating huge potential for advertisers.

Posted By Joseph Howe

After the United States and China, Japan falls within the top three largest advertising markets in the world.

The notion of Japanese advertisements to an outsider often sparks peculiar images of people dressed in flamboyant costumes, or ridiculous narratives that are very left-field to the product they are selling.

Although these traditional forms of advertising are still dominant, their equally extravagant digital counterparts are increasing at a significant rate. This is mainly due to the rise in ownership of mobile phones, allowing for greater access to the internet and prominent social media platforms.

The digital realm of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) allows businesses (small or large) to reach a wider audience and to have complete control over their ad spend and creative outputs. Instead of spending millions of yen on a print or television commercial, where key metrics such as conversion rates are almost unobtainable, SEM can provide real-time data on campaigns that have led to the highest impressions or even conversions.

Why Carry Out Search PPC in Japan?

To be honest, the logic behind carrying out PPC in Japan is often very similar to any other reason to execute it globally. It is a proven method of boosting sales via better traffic to websites, especially when organic traffic may be acting sluggish due to a lack of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Although, research shows that Japan actually has an average CPC (Cost-per-click) that is considerably lower than that of the US. This means that the execution of paid search campaigns in Japan may actually be more affordable than if they were to be carried out elsewhere.

This article seeks to distinguish differences in Japanese SEM from Western counterparts, as well as the crucial cultural factors that need to be considered when creating ad copy or when selecting a device category to target. Additionally, this blog will offer some guidance of which can be implemented into a campaign straightaway. Hopefully providing inspiration and nudging you into the world of SEM.

What Types of SEM Ads Are Available and on What Channels?

In the past, SEM was known to be an umbrella term that covered both SEO and paid search activities. Since then, the phrase has mainly been used to refer to paid search ads.

The types of ads include:

  • Text
  • Display
  • Product Listing (Shopping)
  • Native
  • Retargeting / Remarketing

Channels Include:

  • Search Engines (E.g. Google, Yahoo! Japan, Bing, Naver, Baidu)
  • Partner Websites (E.g. Search Network)

This article will primarily be scoped towards paid search, with many of the considerations discussed focusing on text ads in particular. Likewise, a greater emphasis shall be placed on Google and Yahoo! Japan, due to them being the market leaders in Japan.


The battle of the giants, who will be crowned king in the Japanese market?

How Is Japanese SEM Different from English SEM?

Besides the obvious language difference, creating paid search ads in Japan follows the same rules as in any other country. However, in order to drive cost-effective results, cultural factors need to be considered.

More specifically, in-depth keyword research and cultural communication styles will ensure that the messaging and content of the adverts weave the social and cultural dynamics of a foreign country and language. Furthermore, the importance of targeting certain devices in times of heavy usage will also be mentioned. These three main factors will be discussed below within the context of Japan.

Keyword Research – Basics

Many parallels can be drawn between keyword research for SEO and SEM. However, SEO often requires a deeper dig for potential keywords and content angles, whilst for SEM, excellent keywords for your product may be found by simply Googling it and seeing what suggestions appear in the results.

Without carrying out research, the ads that we spend a long time writing beautiful copy for may not perform as desired. At this point, if you’re unsure on how to conduct diligent keyword research in Japanese, check out our walkthrough on how to execute keyword research for Japanese SEO.

Essentially, Japanese keyword research follows the same rules as in any other language. Always jot down any ideas that come to mind when planning, and check all possible combinations from the multitude of words or phrases you discover. You may find that certain pairings of words may be highly relevant to your product and also have a lower CPC.

When selecting keywords to be included in the copy, the quality score of the ads should always be considered. The lower the score, the less likely the ads will show up for certain keywords, as well as a potentially higher average CPC (Cost-per-click) incurred.

HB Pro Tip: Make sure the keywords you are targeting appear in the headlines and body of text on your landing page. Google will recognise this and boost the overall quality score.

Keyword Research – Localisation

Try and identify localised keywords that may mean the exact same thing but just abbreviated. For example, “京都大学” (Kyoto Daigaku) and “京大” (Kyo-dai) both signify Kyoto University. The latter is just a more colloquial term used. The same can be applied for cases of Kanji vs Katakana, where people are searching for the same product but using synonymous words or characters to search for it. A great example is “靴下” and “ソックス”, where both terms mean ‘Socks’.

Although negative keywords are often overlooked, they are a great method of improving the performance of ads. Don’t forget to write down any preliminary ideas and utilise Google & Yahoo!’s keyword planner tool to see which suggestions of keywords are related to the product but not actually useful. An example would be to eliminate the word “安い” (Cheap) if you were selling luxury cars and wanted to reduce unnecessary spending for keywords that get combined with “車” (Car).

HB Pro Tip: If you were selling socks (for example) in Japan, it would be advisable to add both phrases to the keyword list. When it comes to ad copy, it is advised use an online tool to see which keyword has greater search volume and put this in the title of the advert.

Group carrying out Japanese SEM research

Before touching any online tools, try and scribble down organic ideas surrounding your product or service. Having a native speaker will also lead to more effective results.

Need a hand at scripting out potential keywords? We’ve got the creative bicultural mindset that you need.


Mobile VS Desktop

According to Statcounter (2019), desktop dominates the market share of devices in Japan with 62.92% compared to mobile with 32.36%. One could argue that this is partly due to the fact that smartphone adoption rates in Japan are significantly lower than that of their Asia-Pacific neighbours. For example, in Japan it has been estimated that the percentage of the population that owns a smartphone will increase from 56.1% in 2018 to 61.2% in 2022. When compared with Singapore or South Korea, this figure is considerably low, with both nations predicted to have adoption rates of more than 75% by then. The smaller percentage increase can be explained by an ageing population who are more accustomed to using “traditional” methods for search (desktop), however, we shouldn’t forget the younger generation where 92% of the population aged between 20 and 29 own smartphones.

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. The rise in fast data speeds, the expansive selection of mobile devices, and even the availability of wifi onboard subway trains, has all led to a slow decline in desktop searches over time. Most people are quick to use search engines on mobiles to find a lunch spot, settle a debate with a friend, or even order a fancy dress outfit.

Interestingly, Forbes have claimed that Yahoo! Japan’s revenues from mobile will roughly account for “72% of the company’s online ad revenues” by 2023. Thus, the potential of paid search, especially on mobile, is something that should never be overlooked for those who still associate search engines with just desktops.

HB Pro Tip: Japanese mobile internet use is particularly high during train commutes to and from work. Scheduling an ad spend boost during these peak hours could potentially lead to a higher number of clicks and conversions.

Site Speed

We previously highlighted the importance of optimising the landing page by incorporating keywords related to the product or service. Another crucial factor is to ensure that the mobile site load speed is at its optimum, as 53% of Japan’s mobile visits are likely to be abandoned if load times are greater than 3 seconds.

HB Pro Tip:  Easy methods of improving site speed include; caching static objects to avoid repetitive browser requests and compressing other image and textual assets. Whilst more advanced techniques could be to implement a CDN to reroute requests to the nearest server or minifying and combining your HTML, CSS and JavaScript files. This will remove unnecessary whitespace, formatting and code slowing down your page. Furthermore, incorporating a lazy load can improve user experience on websites that may be content heavy with various media. This is where content at the top loads faster than what is below it down the page. If you’re running your website on WordPress this option is as simple as installing a plugin.

Indirect VS Direct Forms of Communication

Japan is known to be a high-context culture, where indirect forms of communication are more apparent. Most Western cultures are considered low-context, where communication is more explicit or direct.

Within an SEM setting, these communication styles can be applied to the titles and descriptions of an ad’s copy. For example, phrases such as “Buy Now” are commonplace in Western search ads, however, these direct terms may come off as aggressive and too forceful in Japan. Therefore, it is more polite and respectful to use indirect CTAs such as “お問い合わせ” (Enquire Now) in Japan.

HB Pro Tip: Write a direct or indirect CTA in your ad and test which version leads to a higher click-through-rate (CTR) or even greater conversions. Google or Yahoo! Japan will often take the better performing ad and increase its presence to users if you’re executing an auto-optimised campaign. This is an efficient and rewarding way of improving the overall copy, as well as learning from the whole experience.

Indirect or direct, we’ve got the cultural expertise to help localise your content.

Enquire Now ;)

Okay great! Now that we’ve discussed three significant cultural factors when creating paid search ads, you may be wondering which search engine will provide the results we desire. When discussing potential search platforms in Japan, two big players are often brought into conversation… Google or Yahoo! Japan?

Google vs Yahoo! Japan

Throughout the early 2000s, Yahoo! Japan dominated the scene due to a rise in innovation and development of mobile and PC devices. The default browser settings on most mobile devices were also set to Yahoo! Japan, aiding its dominance throughout this period. Whilst on the other hand, the rise of Google, combined with its advanced algorithm yet simplistic design, converted users to the more efficient and powerful search engine. In 2010, this led to Yahoo! Japan implementing Google’s smart algorithms in its own search engine in order to offer improved search results to their users. (Note: Whilst Yahoo! Japan’s organic search results are helped by Google, Google Ads will not show up on Yahoo! Japan’s search engine results page).

The pie chart below shows that Google is the main search engine in Japan with almost 75% of the total market share. Whilst Yahoo! Japan holds a little under a quarter of the search engine market share.

Search Engine Market Share in Japan (Feb 2019)

*Tap or Hover on the graph below to see details.

Source: Statcounter, 2019

Even though Yahoo! Japan holds considerably less influence in the search engine world it definitely should not be ignored. The website is still a highly popular portal for various interactions, with the homepage providing users with news, weather forecasts, and access to their mail. Additionally, affiliate websites such as Yahoo! Auction (the number 1 marketplace to bid on an assortment of new and used goods), and other integrated content (like Naver Matome) regularly come up in Yahoo! search. Thus, we should not solely determine the popularity of a search engine based on its market share, but also analyse the influence it has through other channels or mediums.

How Are They Similar?

In terms of SEM structure for both websites, many similarities can be drawn. The SERP structure is identical with a maximum of 8 ads showing on the page (4 on the top and bottom), with the ranking based on the quality score and maximum bid tied to each keyword.

Moreover, when trying to identify potential keywords to target, both search engines offer insightful tools; Keyword Advice Tool (Yahoo! Japan) and Keyword Planner (Google). Personally, Google’s keyword planner is more beneficial as it offers past data on keywords, highlighting potential trends emerging at particular points in the year. Whereas Yahoo! Japan only shows day-by-day estimates of the keywords.

How Are They Different?

Looking at the table below, one of the main differences between the two platforms is the amount of characters that can be used for the headlines and descriptions for the ad copy. Where Japanese headlines and descriptions have half the amount of characters due to the language following a double-byte system.

Google Adwords Text Ad Limitations

Single Width Languages (English) Double Width Languages (Japanese)
Headline 1 30 15
Headline 2 30 15
Headline 3 30 15
Description 1 90 45
Description 2 90 45

Yahoo! Japan Sponsored Search Text Ad Limitations

Single Width Languages (English) Double Width Languages (Japanese)
Title 30 15
Description 1 38 19
Description 2 38 19

Sitelink Differences

Additionally, another significant variation between the two platforms are the types of ad extensions available.

  • For Sitelinks that appear below the main body of the ad, Yahoo! Japan restricts this to 4, whilst Google allows between 2 and 6. In some cases Google allows a description to be tied to each site link, allowing for greater visibility of the ad to a potential customer.
  • Call extensions exist on both platforms, with the only notable difference of Google placing the phone number below the features of the ad, and Yahoo! Japan having a call button on the right side of the ad.
  • Seller & Review Extensions is a highly beneficial feature that Google utilises but Yahoo! Japan lacks. It displays valuable 3rd party information on the quality of service provided to potential customers. Reviews and ratings will automatically be displayed when they average over 3.5 stars and have at least 150 unique reviews.

There is an argument that in order to successfully optimise SEM campaigns in Japan, Google and Yahoo! should both be used to identify the demographics of the users, and to test and compare the effectiveness. Success is often down to experimenting with the creative ad copy and combination of keywords, whilst comparing and analysing results from both search engines.

You would be excluding a quarter of potential users from viewing your product or service by simply selecting Google because of its higher market share. Although both platforms offer similar ad structures, if a restaurant owner was stuck between advertising on Google or Yahoo! Japan, the seller reviews and ratings service offered by Google would be more valuable to their business.


SEM is an indispensable technique for businesses to access a wider audience and boost levels of traffic and conversion thereby. This article has explained various cultural factors that need to be considered before jumping straight into an ad campaign.

In-depth keyword research, device targeting and indirect forms of communication can all play a significant role in determining the success of paid search ads. Likewise, the decision to execute a campaign on either Google or Yahoo! Japan, or both, should be examined diligently. One platform might perform better than the other, or even access an audience that wasn’t considered before.

At Humble Bunny, we believe you should always test both platforms and compare the results after a few weeks. One may actually lead to a higher conversion rate than the other, even when using the same headlines and copy.

In a collectivistic country such as Japan, where purchasing practices are heavily influenced by feelings of trust and confidence, a reviews and ratings system offered by Google can play a significant role in attracting consumers to a particular service.

Hopefully we’ve given you heuristic insight regarding relevant information that can be incorporated into a Japanese SEM campaign right away. If you are still intrigued on how to optimise paid search ads or any marketing advice, send us a message to start a conversation.

Still curious about how SEM can drive sales and growth in your business?

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