Tailoring Your Web Site to Foreign Markets

Last Updated Nov 27, 2007 12:39 PM EST

Localization is about creating Web site content specific to a language and marketplace, and is imperative if you want to market to non-English speakers. Localization is an expensive process. More than simply translating content, localization also takes cultural differences into account. You must make sure that you can achieve an appropriate return on the investment. If you are not already selling into a marketplace, a localized Web site will not suddenly open up the market for you.

What You Need to KnowWhat exactly is localization?

Localization is the process by which the content and design of a Web site are customized for a foreign market. Localization is not simply content translation, although that is an important element. It involves understanding the culture of the target marketplaces and finding ways to create and adapt content that will appeal to the people in those marketplaces.

Why localize?

Increasingly, Internet users are non-English speakers. To sell to this audience, a business must offer a Web site that literally speaks their language. In addition, when people buy from Web sites not in their native language, the rate of returned goods is very high, which costs the online business money.

Does automatic translation work?

While software for automatically translating one language to another has improved significantly, the results are mostly patchy. Automatic translation can give a rough idea of what was written in another language, but you want to communicate in ways that work effectively in the new language and are appropriate to the culture. Translation is best done by people who know not only the language but also the customs and preferences of the target population.

What to DoDevelop a Return-on-Investment Model

If you already have a substantial presence in a particular market, localization may well make sense. If, however, you are currently selling very little into a marketplace, do your homework to determine whether a localized Web site can indeed increase sales and cover costs. To conduct a market test, translate a section of the Web site into the target language. (This will help identify problems in the localization process.) Identify a sample of the target market and ask them for their feedback on the English-versus-foreign sections. Their responses will help you determine your next step.

Understand Your Market

Before doing any localization, you must fully understand the market you want to reach. Based on your knowledge of your target market, consider:

  • What is the best way to deal with dates, currencies, and units of measurement?
  • What is the bandwidth availability for the average consumer in the target market?
  • Are there any particular colors or icons that work well or that would create a negative reaction among the target audience?
Manage Language Content Carefully

Although some original text will be required for each market, some content will be relatively generic across all your Web sites directed to foreign markets. When writing such content:

  • Write in a simple and precise manner. Avoid culturally specific references and colloquialisms. Humor, wit, sarcasm, and irony don't generally translate well.
  • Strive to use terminology that is internationally understood, rather than particular to your language or—worse still—to your organization.

If you are targeting the U.S., use American English. If you are targeting the United Kingdom, use British English. However, if you are targeting the broader English-language world—including English speakers in countries such as Germany, France, or Japan—use American English.

Unless you are dealing with very small quantities of content, you should look into software that can help you synchronize translation. When you change content in one language, it will trigger changes in other languages you're using.

Ensure That Your Software Is Up to the Task

The Web site software must be able to handle all the languages you anticipate using. Some software can deal only with ASCII characters, but languages such as Chinese or Japanese require software that handles Unicode, which has a much broader capacity. You will need to take some special steps when working with HTML; make sure your technical team understands the requirements.

Localize Web Site Design As Well As Language

Consider how the text will appear when translated; for example, German words tend to be longer than English words so the text will expand in translation, affecting page length and other factors in web design. If graphics include text, it may be difficult to achieve an acceptable translation within the graphic, so you may want to show the text separately. If you attempt to modify a graphic to accommodate a foreign language, always keep the original of the graphic intact in your files.

Your offices in foreign marketplaces can put highly localized content on the Web site. At the same time, you should maintain a common design among all your localized Web sites, so your organization doesn't appear disorganized or uncoordinated.

Manage Language Navigation With Sensitivity

Language can be a political and emotional issue. When designing language navigation, consider the sensibilities of the target market:

  • If the Web site is accommodating several languages of roughly equal prominence, an introductory page may be required where visitors are asked to choose their language.
  • Ideally, domains should be registered in each country and then marketed within that country. For example, www.mycompany.de will bring a visitor directly to the German version of the Web site.
  • Your software may be able to detect the language for the browser the visitor is using, and default to that language.
  • Dropdown navigation should be placed prominently near the top of every page, so that the visitor can quickly switch languages if desired.
  • Avoid using national flags to signify language. Instead, use the native word for the language.
  • Use language descriptors with icons, because it can be difficult to identify icons that are understood across languages.
What to AvoidYou Think Localization Is a Cheap Way of Going Global

For most products and services, selling in a market involves a lot more than setting up a Web site in the language of the market. To be successful, you will very often need to have people and offices on the ground. You will need time to understand the culture properly, and may need to customize your products to the demands of local consumers.

You Fail to Accommodate Updates

Translating the Web site into several languages is just the beginning; content in all the languages used must be kept fresh and up-to-date. Without reliable processes in place, freshening and updating becomes very difficult.

You Allow Multiple Standards

Some organizations allow their local offices to establish their own Web sites. The result is an uncoordinated confusion of designs and content, the overall impression is one of disorganization, and the costs of management and maintenance are substantial.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Slatin, John M., and Sharron Rush. Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone. Addison-Wesley, 2002.

Web Sites:

Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA): www.lisa.org

Multilingualwebmaster.com: www.multilingualwebmaster.com