Search Ads in Japan – What Are My Options?

Posted By Jim Kersey

Search ads are a cornerstone of most marketing strategies today, but what role does it play for brands operating in Japan? And is running a successful PPC campaign here any different to doing so in other countries?

We explore what all brands targeting Japanese customers with digital marketing campaigns should know about using search ads on platforms like Google and Yahoo! Japan (the nation’s second most popular search engine), and run through our best tips for building an effective SEM strategy.

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The Role of Search Ads in Japan

Digital marketing in Japan is now outpacing more traditional methods of advertising and customer engagement, like TV and Radio.

Ad spending in the digital advertising market is now projected to increase from US$15,875m in 2020 to $18,740m by 2025. And within this, search advertising is the market’s largest segment with a projected volume of US$7,304m by 2025, according to Statista.

With more sophisticated targeting options and increasingly intuitive performance analytics and reporting capabilities, it’s becoming easier for Japanese companies, once reluctant to embrace digital marketing, to incorporate online search ads into their marketing strategies.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Search Ads

Advantages Disadvantages
Can help you quickly drive traffic to your website and landing pages without the need for strong organic search rankings, no matter how new you are to the Japanese market.  PPC search ads in Japan are increasingly competitive, especially in sectors like fashion and luxury goods where digital marketing is now a mainstay of branded marketing campaigns.
Great for businesses that want to provide more instant or immediate services, and sectors that are more niche. Can your data analytics tell you anything new about your keywords? For example, are people actually converting as you’d hoped, or are they performing other actions when they land on your site? For example, high bounce rates from search engines will indicate that your content probably doesn’t match up with searcher intent.
Anyone can use search ads and marketing spend here can be easily scaled up or down. There’s no 100% guarantee people will click your search ads over organic results, even if you’re in first place for your targeted keywords.

Do People Avoid Search Ads?

Organic searches typically get more clicks overall than PPC ads, but people will always click on paid search ads that appear more relevant to the information they are searching for online.

This makes optimizing your ads for user search intent crucial. To make sure you’re not wasting money, be crystal clear about what you want to achieve with each of your search campaigns and work hard to refine your messaging, landing pages, and keyword strategy so that you have the best chance of driving relevant traffic to where it needs to go.

HB Pro Tip: We recommend choosing keywords with higher commercial intent, that include phrases like “buy” or “cheap”, and avoid more informational keywords in your PPC strategy. These terms are still great, but might be more effective in your SEO keywords list where you’re not paying for every click (unless you have a comprehensive funnel strategy in place designed to drive customers towards an eventual conversion).

Search Ad Options in Japan

Marketer testing search ads in Japan

Google is the most used search engine in Japan. But, Yahoo is the second most visited site in the whole of Japan (next to Google) with a far-reaching network of associated online hubs and services, including its popular news platform ranking number one in its category.

The key takeaway is that while your experience handling Google search ads campaigns in your home market is still entirely relevant, Yahoo! Japan is far more important here than in other countries and shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to reaching Japanese users.

Japanese Search Engine Market Share

Google 77.13%
Yahoo! 17.72%
bing 4.7%
Baidu 0.16%
DuckDuckGo 0.16%
YANDEX RU 0.03%

Source: Statcounter

The actual mechanics of search ads are very similar across both Google and Yahoo! Japan. Both are pay-per-click advertising platforms designed to help businesses reach specific audiences, drive traffic, and increase revenue.

Google vs. Yahoo! JAPAN

Banner promotion of Yahoo! Japan search ads in Japan

The Yahoo you’ll find in Japan is owned by SoftBank Corp and is created specifically for the Japanese market. This is different from the Yahoo that’s owned by Verizon Media operating in other parts of the world. The result is that its services and functionality are more closely aligned with what Japanese users want and expect.

While Google’s simple design and advanced algorithms have universal relevance (regardless of location), Yahoo has an impressive position in the Japanese market with hundreds of services and many popular mobile apps that could play a part in reaching your ideal customers.

When it comes to search ads in Japan, you might actually find that the markets and keywords you want to target are less competitive on Yahoo! Japan than Google.

Due to lower search volumes, and therefore low competition, your cost-per-click could also be very low. So, even if your conversion targets are more modest on Yahoo!, your return on investment (ROI) is likely to be more impressive (assuming your PPC ads are successful).

Also, older consumers who may be more likely to use Yahoo! as their search engine of choice could be easier to reach on this platform. And as older consumers tend to have much greater purchasing power, this could be a great place to focus your efforts if you’re selling more high-end, luxury products to this demographic.

HB Pro Tip: Many brands will choose one platform over the other for the sake of simplicity. While this is fine, remember that they actually perform best when they are paired, giving you access to almost 100% of the search market in Japan.

Search Ads vs Display Ads

Search advertising is not the only paid marketing option in Japan. Both Google and Yahoo! Japan offer display ad options that can be integrated into your marketing strategy.

However, display advertising performs a very different role from paid search ads. They are a form of push advertising that can appear to anyone based on various targeting parameters, while search ads are a form of “pull” advertising where ads only appear to people who are already searching for your products or services (and are closer to the point of conversion).

CTR is higher for search ads according to Google Ads industry benchmarks. Much of this comes down to the greater level of targeting involved when using search ads and the increased chance of someone being immediately interested in your ad.

Ecommerce Search Ads

Woman online shopping in Japan and experiencing search ads in Japan

Ecommerce platforms like Amazon Japan and Rakuten also have search functionality and paid ad options. While slightly different in nature to search engines like Google, catering to Japanese searchers who are actively browsing for products on popular ecommerce sites can be incredibly effective.

So, if you’re selling online in Japan, make sure you consider the role that features like sponsored brands and product ads play can play. This can help you appear on the first page of shopping results and product pages, helping shoppers discover your products.

HB Pro Tip: You must make sure your product names and descriptions are completely accurate and localized for the Japanese market. You don’t want to give shoppers an excuse to choose a domestic brand over yours just because your content is somewhat lacking, vague, or confusing due to poor translations.

Learn More About Ecommerce in Japan

How to Use Search Ads in Japan

Japanese commuters represents key micro moment for search ads in Japan

Whether you’re in Japan or not, getting search ads right is all about identifying the important micro-moments that influence customer behaviour. For example, when, why and even where are people making searchers for your keywords?

Next, it’s your job to create the perfect ad to match the perfect moment. Synergy between these elements, assuming your content is tailored to the Japanese user, will drive traffic to your website and product pages.

Identify the Perfect “Micro-moments”

Discover the crucial micro-moments when someone actually forms an intention to do, buy, or learn something. It could be a fraction of a second or a single search, but identifying this space in time is crucial to making search ads that are genuinely useful and conversion-optimized.

Discover Keywords

Discover the keywords people use when turning to their devices (within a micro-moment) to fulfil their urge to do something. You can find out what these are by performing comprehensive and localized keyword research or reviewing the most popular search phrases of your competitors.

We go into a little more depth about Japanese keywords in the next section!

Identify Search Intent

Each keyword will have a unique search intent. These can be broadly broken down into the following:

  • Informational – Queries where people are looking to gain knowledge
  • Navigational – Queries where people are looking for a specific website
  • Transactional – Queries where people are looking to take a specific action using the web

Google also breaks down search queries into four micro-moment categories:

Google micro moments for search ads in Japan

To discover those crucial micro-moments and the kind of content that you should be creating to tap into a user’s search motivation, it can be useful to:

  • Monitor the presence of various SERP features in search results, such as answer boxes and local listings. This will help you define how search engines categorise keywords.
  • Review “People Also Ask” suggestions for a better idea of what searchers are looking for.
  • Check which keywords and micro-moments your competitors are targeting and review the kind of ad content they are creating.

Create Targeted Ads

Craft ads that tie creative messages with your keywords, within the context of their search intent. If there is a lack of synergy here, (such as ads not relating to keywords), people will either avoid them or you’ll generate traffic to your site that isn’t relevant to your conversion goals.

Deliver Messages at the Right Time

To ensure you’re tapping into the micro-moment efficiently, you’ll need to set your ads to be shown at the right time. This involves optimizing their rotations based on what you know about your audience.

For instance, if you’re targeting office workers with a non-company related service or product, don’t waste money on showing your ads in the middle of the day when people are busy and less likely to search for your products or services.

Test and Optimize

Finally, choose metrics to measure the success of your strategy and optimize your content based on your performance. Your ads might need adapting so that they do better at achieving your specific goals.

HB Pro Tip: The success of many of our search ad campaigns for clients like Aigner have relied on constant testing and optimizing. Sometimes the best recipe for high traffic and conversions is only found through experimentation with different ad rotations, ad creatives, and landing pages.

Choosing the Right Japanese Keywords

Marketing team performing keyword research for search ads in Japan

Japanese is a different language to English in more ways than one. Simply translating keywords from English into Japanese isn’t the way PPC in Japan should be done.

If you really want to tap into those micro-moments, you’re going to need a better grasp of the local language, consumer mindset, and evolving nature of Japanese trends and cultural meanings. After all, each language is loaded with subtle associations and hidden meanings that are unknown to outsiders.

To do all this, you’ll need native Japanese speakers to assist, and potentially run, you search ad campaigns. You can’t afford to make too many assumptions about keywords and important search intent, especially in your planning stages where you’re building the foundation of your search ads keyword strategy.

We recommend working with a Japanese team from the initial keyword research phases right through to the actual creation of your ad content. This will help you to find the most valuable terms and phrases for your brand and create ad content that will resonate with the Japanese user.

Factor in Demographic Preferences

There are three different character sets in Japanese and many different ways to say the same thing. Your process needs to be robust and fluid when it comes to making sure you’ve explored all the potential keyword possibilities before selecting a shortlist that is the most suitable for your goals, brand, and audience.

Most of this comes down to getting into your user’s mindset. The terms people use will vary massively depending on their preferences or demographic segment. For example, younger Japanese people might incorporate more English terms into their searches due to their greater exposure to global trends. They might also use slang or colloquial terms that older generations are not aware of.

HB Pro Tip: In Japan, English terms and phrases have often been borrowed or modified to take on different meanings. This creates areas where a narrow approach to keywords, without the help of Japanese native speakers, can miss important opportunities to target the actual terms people are using when making searches online. A multilingual SEO approach is the best option.

How to Determine Keyword Search Intent

The following steps can help you determine the search intent for potential keywords you want to add to your PPC ads strategy.

Study SERPs Google can tell you what the search intent is for a keyword by showing the most relevant and popular results for any given term. Through its algorithm, it has a good idea of what people want. Using this information can help you determine what people are searching for when they use specific keywords.
Cross-reference with Google Ads By finding out who else is bidding on certain keywords you can learn a lot about their search intent, as well as their value. Generally, the higher the suggested bid, the higher the commercial intent and potential value to be gained from targeting it. You might also get some ideas about effective ad content and landing pages that can be used to target specific keywords.
Use analytics Can your data analytics tell you anything new about your keywords? For example, are people actually converting as you’d hoped, or are they performing other actions when they land on your site? For example, high bounce rates from search engines will indicate that your content probably doesn’t match up with searcher intent.

HB Pro Tip: More expensive and higher competition keywords aren’t always better keywords. You competitors may have missed opportunities or they may have different goals. You might find that bidding on some non-transactional keywords could actually be more profitable for you when followed up with a sales funnel that channels users through different touchpoints, building a stronger relationship with them before prompting an eventual purchase. They are also generally cheaper and easier to rank for when using search ads in Japan.

Optimize for Mobile Searches in Japan

Woman using mobile searches and encountering search ads in Japan

If for some reason you need reminding, all your content (ads or otherwise) should be optimized for mobile experiences.

More than half of the Japanese population have smartphones and mobile video ad revenue is expected to grow to $885m in 2021 (up from $199m in 2015) with a large focus on video marketing.

Mobile Search Engine Market Share in Japan

Google 75.24%
Yahoo! 24.13%
bing 0.26%
Baidu 0.15%
DuckDuckGo 0.14%
YANDEX RU 0.02%

Source: Statcounter

Best Practices for Optimising Your Ads for Mobile

To connect with potential customers on mobile devices, there are a few best practices you should implement.

  • Ensure language is as succinct and concise as possible
  • Use a strong, well-placed call-to-action with key terms like “buy”, “Call” or “Download”
  • Create headlines that grab attention
  • Highlight your key benefits and value propositions in fewer words
  • Rotate multiple ad variations to test for optimal delivery
  • Create landing pages that are also optimized for mobile with good synergy with search ads

HB Pro Tip: Certain ad extensions will allow you to show extra business information with your ad, like an address or phone number. These can increase the chance of your users actually performing the action you want them to.

Need Help Optimizing Your Search Ads?

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SEO and PPC Search Ads for Greater Traffic

Representation of PPC search ads in Japan versus SEO strategies

PPC offers many benefits to new brands and businesses in Japan, especially when you need to generate short-term sales and are suffering from low brand awareness in your new target market. However, search ads in Japan are not always the most cost-effective strategy when performed with a complementary SEO strategy.

While organic search marketing is admittedly slower to implement and achieve results with, you’ll be able to drive traffic to your site for free (when executed well). SEO also encourages Japanese users, who are naturally uncertainty-avoiding, to see you as a reliable brand with a good reputation in their home market.

Anyone can run a search ads campaign with enough budget. But only the most dedicated brands will invest in long-term SEO strategies with engaging, original content that meets the needs of Japanese audiences.

Should I Use Search Ads in Japan?

If you’re still not decided, here are a few final benefits of search ads to consider when planning your marketing strategy for Japan.

  • It can help you drive sales immediately in a market that doesn’t know much about you
  • It lets you compete with more well-established brands with relatively low upfront costs
  • It allows you to target searchers as they’re actively looking for products and services
  • It allows you to target audiences based on intent, interests and specific locations in Japan, tapping into crucial micro-moments
  • It allows you to scale up and down incredibly quickly depending on your budget and capacity
  • It allows you to make informed data-driven decisions that can help your business grow

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