Best Practices for Japanese SEO

Posted: May 14, 2021

Updated: Jan. 21, 2022


Japan is the world's fourth largest advertising market, following China, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In 2019, the Japanese market for online advertising was valued at approximately 1.9 trillion JPY. Driven by mobile ads, the market is expected to grow further in the coming years, and reach 2.84 trillion JPY by 2023. If you are planning to enter the Japan market, it's important to understand the unique background and business culture.


Digital Marketing and Advertising in Japan

If you've been researching the Japanese advertising industry, you might already know that Dentsu is the most powerful advertising agency, especially in traditional media, and has also recently expanded a lot globally through a series of acquisitions.


After Dentsu, Hakuhodo is the second largest ad agency in Japan, and they have traditionally been stronger in print advertising. More recently, CyberAgent has risen in the Japanese advertising agency, specifically in the web media space. They rose to prominence originally from Ameba, a popular blogging platform.


Global agencies such as Ogilvy and GroupM are also present in Japan, and there are also a lot of boutique marketing agencies that could support your entry into the Japan market.


However, if you are already experienced in SEO, you could work in-house to launch and optimize your Japanese site. Of course the general rules of international SEO apply - hreflang annotations, locale-specific URLs, etc., but there are also some specific best practices for Japanese SEO.


Japanese Search Engine

If you're coming from English SEO, the good news is that you probably don't need to learn a new search engine. The main search engine used in Japan is Google or Yahoo. These days, Google is more popular, and generally young and tech-savvy people are using it. From a Japanese SEO perspective, you can just focus on optimizing for Google, because Yahoo is also powered by Google's algorithm.


Title and Meta Description

Google counts pixel length, not number of characters. Regardless of the language, the maximum title length is 560px, and meta description is 990px. You might know that for English, that's approximately 60 characters for the title and 160 characters for the meta description.


All Japanese characters are 20 pixels, so the maximum title length is 28 characters, and meta description is 49.5 characters, assuming you are only using full-width Japanese characters.


It's common to use the LEN function in Excel to make sure your title and meta description aren't too long, but I'd recommend using LENB instead. LENB counts the byte length of text in cells. Alphanumeric characters are single byte, and full width Japanese characters are double bytes. The maximum LENB for Japanese SEO titles is 60, and meta description is 135.


Top-Level Domain

The best top-level domains for Japanese sites are .co.jp and .jp.


.co.jp is available for companies registered in Japan, so it indicates that the business is legitimate and trustworthy. But if you're already an established global company with an online presence, I would recommend keeping your site and adding a Japanese version, so for example www.example.com/ja/


If you use a generic top-level domain (.com, .net, .info, etc.) you can use the country targeting tool in Google Search Console to tell Google that you are targeting to Japan.


URL Structure

From an SEO perspective it's fine to use either Japanese characters or Roman alphabets. I would recommend using Roman alphabets though, because it's easier to share the link via email or social media. URLs that use Japanese characters could have encoding issues when they are copied and shared.


You can include Japanese keywords in the URL with Romaji (Roman alphabets to spell Japanese words). For more information about non-English URLs, Google Search Central's John Mueller gives his answer in this video.


Japanese SEO Tools

As far as I know, there isn't really a Japanese equivalent to the well-loved tools like ahrefs and SEMrush. There is one called mieru-ca but even the cheapest plan is around $1,000 monthly. Some Japanese marketers prefer mieru-ca because it uses a familiar design for Japanese users. ahrefs and SEMrush are available in Japanese, but the translation and localization can still be improved, in my opinion.


However, that's just a problem about Japanese UI/UX of ahrefs and SEMrush, not related to the accuracy of SEO data. So you can still use ahrefs and SEMrush English version, for Japanese keyword research. It's not quite as accurate as English SEO data but it's good enough. I've found ahrefs to be more reliable with search volume, and if you have a Google Ads account, you can use keyword planner to double check. SEMrush is generally better for technical and competitive metrics for Japanese sites.


On-Page Japanese SEO

Written Japanese uses a mix of 3 different alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) so there's multiple ways of writing the same search query. Usually there's one that looks and sounds the most natural to a native speaker, and that one will have the highest search volume, while the other variations will have little to no search volume.


Link Building

I've seen my colleagues working in English-speaking markets succeed with cold outreach for backlink exchanges, but it's not a common practice in Japan. If you have extensive resources or connections in digital PR, you can try link building through feature articles or interviews in online media.


Otherwise, you can just start with social media and blogging platforms. Many Japanese people are avid social media users, but there are unique cultural norms. For example, LinkedIn is not very popular here - in fact, the only Japanese people I know that use LinkedIn are English bilinguals or work for an international company. Instead, Facebook is generally used as the social media platform for business. Twitter is also popular in Japan because users are not required to reveal their names, and can instead use it anonymously.


Here are some examples of popular social apps and platforms that are unique to Japan. At the time of writing, links from note, Qiita, and Wantedly count as dofollow.

  • LINE: Basically everyone in Japan uses the messaging app LINE. It's the Japanese equivalent of iMessage, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, etc. LINE is continuing to add new products such as its AI assistant LINE Clova, and new services such as LINE Pay for online payments, and LINE music, which is like the Japanese equivalent of Spotify.

  • SmartNews: SmartNews is a news app targeted towards businesspeople.

  • eight: eight by SanSan is a business card app that allows you to "exchange" business cards with people via QR code. They are increasing features such as adding a timeline for posts, similar to Facebook or Twitter, and launching Eight ONAIR, a service to sign up and watch webinars.

  • note: note is the Japanese equivalent of Medium. It's common for people to have a personal or company account for blogging.

  • Qiita: Qiita is also similar to Medium, but is mainly used by engineers.

  • Wantedly: Wantedly is kind of similar to LinkedIn. Generally startups and smaller companies use it for recruiting, and young people such as new grads or businesspeople in their 20s and 30s use it to find jobs. Companies can share blog posts and employee interviews to showcase their values and culture, and individual users can create a profile to showcase their education and work history. On Wantedly, you can arrange casual chats for the recruiter and candidate, before officially starting an application process.


Should You Use a Japanese Hosting Server?

There isn't a definitive answer to this question among SEO professionals, but one thing to keep in mind is that the server location can affect page speed, so it can indirectly affect SEO that way.


According to Google Search Central in 2007, the web server's IP address is a factor for search results. If you are targeting Japanese SEO, you might have an advantage if you use a rental hosting server located in Japan.


In 2015, Google's John Mueller gave a slightly different statement in the webmasters forum.

For search, specifically for geotargeting, the server's location plays a very small role, in many cases it's irrelevant. If you use a ccTLD or a gTLD together with Webmaster Tools, then we'll mainly use the geotargeting from there, regardless of where your server is located. You definitely don't need to host your website in any specific geographic location -- use what works best for you, and give us that information via a ccTLD or Webmaster Tools.


Other Considerations

Japanese business culture has traditionally valued in-person and phone interactions, and in some industries, it's still uncommon for companies to have sophisticated digital marketing. So it's still possible for foreigner companies to swoop in and have an advantage over the local competition for Japanese SEO.


However, there are many other considerations for Japanese SEO that I haven't discussed above, for example, website design, translation quality, backlinks, and competitive metrics. These will depend largely on your industry and overall marketing goals and strategy.