Google to expand offering in Saudi amid push to grow online Arabic content

Majority of internet users in the Arab World do not search the web in English

Dubai, Jan, 30, 2018: Lino Catarruzzi, Head of Goggle,MENA pose during the interview at his office in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National / Story by Sarah Townsend
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Technology major Google aims to expand its offerings in Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to increase the amount of Arabic language content on the internet to better serve the needs of the hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers.

Google is targeting growth in Saudi Arabia through a dedicated team of staff – including some Saudi nationals, Lino Cattaruzzi, the Dubai-based managing director for Google Mena, told The National. The team, which is to be based in the company's regional headquarters in Dubai, will assess business opportunities in the kingdom over the coming months and devise a package of initiatives to be implemented over the next three years and beyond.

“We are going deep into enabling the digital transformation of Saudi Arabia with a multi-year, multi-project initiative,” Mr Cattaruzzi said.

The new programme is in line with the kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic diversification efforts. Saudi Arabia 2020 National Transformation Plan revealed in 2016 aims to increase the number of internet users in the kingdom to 85 per cent from 63.7 per cent.

There are an estimated 400 million Arabic speakers across the world and the proportion of global users that access the internet in Arabic has risen from around 58 per cent in 2013 to 78 per cent in 2017, according to the research portal.

To address this demand, Google will this year ramp up efforts to improve Arabic responses to Google Search queries, increase and disseminate Arabic language digital content on YouTube and other platforms, and forge better links between Arabic news publishers and advertisers.

"The majority of Arabs in Mena do not speak English and do not query [on Google Search] in English," said Mr Cattaruzzi.

“One of the things we are doing as a top priority is to get Arabic presence and content at the core of our engagement in the region.”

The majority of Arabic speakers reside in Mena, which accounts for the lion's share of the increase because of the region's high mobile penetration and internet connectivity rates.

With the exception of the UAE – where English is widely spoken – the majority of search queries received on a daily basis by Google in Mena are in Arabic, although the company does not provide a detailed breakdown.

“We are trying to make sure that the quality of our query replies in Arabic is on a par with the replies we get in other languages,” Mr Cattaruzzi said.

Mr Cattaruzzi said Google has a three-pronged strategy to increase the volume and quality of Arabic content available on the internet. In the coming weeks, Google's 11th global "YouTube Space" training and production studio will open in in Dubai Studio City, targeted at YouTube content creators producing in the Arabic language.

The facility is expected to drive a significant proportion of the production of new online video in Arabic, a spokeswoman for Google Mena said.

In the past two years Google launched the YouTube Aflam and Mosalsalat channels, which together have added 13,000 hours of Arabic content to YouTube. The two channels are dedicated to Arabic movies and TV shows.


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Google Mena is also working to link Arabic language content creators with advertisers to build revenue-generating digital platforms. "If the content creators can get more revenues [from advertising], they can produce even more content," said Mr Cattaruzzi.

"What we are trying to do is share with the content creators what is it that the advertisers are looking for, and vice versa, so they can match."

The third plank of the strategy is to equip Arabic news publishers with data-driven insight and skills to more effectively disseminate digital content and monetise their businesses.

“The average Mena user likes to see local publishers and this is where we are really directing our focus," he said. "Because they will service the type of content the majority of people want to see.”

In addition, Google's artificial intelligence-based Machine Learning technology is updating Google Translate services on a minute-by-minute basis, including Arabic languages. Meanwhile, there are more than 17,000 books in Arabic on the Google Play Store, the company said.

Google does not reveal its digital advertising revenues for Mena or elsewhere, but Mr Cattaruzzi said the company is seeing "phenomenal" growth in the region due to the rise of e-commerce and increasingly sophisticated corporate advertising strategies. Digital advertising spend in emerging markets in general is growing at rates almost twice as fast as in mature markets, he added.

Digital advertising spend in the Middle East stood at US$3.8 billion in 2017 and is projected to grow by as much as 20 per cent annually to $6.5bn by 2020, according to 2016 figures from research firm eMarketer.