The Wide World of Conversions: Exploring Cultural Differences

  |  February 7, 2012   |  Comments

If you're looking to expand into international markets online, don't assume that people across the globe interact with websites in a similar way.

It has long been observed that search terms and phrases used by global brands often do not work when translated from English to other languages. For example, in Italian, the regular translation of "cheap flights" ("voli economici") has only 33,000 local searches monthly in Google Italy. The Anglo-Italian search term "voli low cost" has nearly eight times the search volume at 246,000 searches. Even within the same language there can be cultural differences that cause people of one country to use words and phrases differently than those speaking the same language in a different country.

Likewise, many other elements of web design can be subject to subtle cultural nuances that can have a major impact on conversions. Global marketing is more than just swapping out photos and translating the text. While developing a localized design is far costlier and more complex than creating a global template, the payoff in terms of customer engagement and conversion can far outweigh the challenges.

How do you identify the specific elements from each culture that will impact conversions? A company called Oban Multilingual has created a cultural database that collects data on popular types of web design in each country, segmented by webpage type (cart page, home page, product category page), country, and industry sector. Joe Doveton, head of client services at Oban, is presenting highlights from this database at next month's Conversion Conference, and offers these top tips for web designers targeting cross-cultural audiences.

Localize Your Testing

Test your website for every market you're in. When testing sites, Oban found that in almost every case, at least one of the combinations tested always performed better than the original website. On top of this, almost every top variation was different in each market. This highlights just how varied the internet population can be.

Consider Text Placement

Eye-tracking studies have revealed that different cultures "read" websites in different ways. In the West, our eyes tend to wander to the left-hand side of the screen, which is why toolbars are usually found on this side. However, in China, people tend to read down the whole page. It is these kinds of cultural traits that need to be considered when adapting a site for a foreign market.

Be Image Conscious

One of Oban's biggest testing campaigns revealed that placing the product image on the left rather than the right boosted conversion rates by 16 percent in France, by 9 percent in the U.K., and had no effect in the Spanish market. Clearly, slight changes that may not seem significant to you can result in vast differences in conversion rates.

Become a Digital Chameleon

Colors can hold huge significance in many cultures, and it's important to be aware of their meanings in order to convey your intended message. In China, red is seen as the color of good luck and celebration, whereas in South Africa it is the color of mourning. When testing a well-known retail website, Oban found that in Italy, conversions were boosted by changing the "call to action" button from red to orange, whereas in Russia it was a black and red combination that had more success.

Localize When Globalizing

As with international SEO campaigns, the key to reaching foreign audiences is to market your site according to their local preferences. Research what works best - translated or localized text, long web pages, or ones that fit fully on the screen, busy sites or sites which are simply designed, etc. This kind of knowledge will keep you one step ahead of competitors and ensure your site is tailored to the needs of your target demographic.

If your organization is looking to expand into international markets online, don't assume that people across the globe interact with websites in a similar way. Testing has proven that cultures respond differently when presented with the same landing pages. You'll be missing out on extra conversions if you try to adhere too closely to a global template rather than localizing certain elements of your site to fit the culture of the region you are targeting.


Tim Ash

Tim Ash is CEO of, a landing page optimization firm that offers conversion consulting, full-service guaranteed-improvement tests, and software tools to improve conversion rates. SiteTuners' visual attention prediction tool can be used on a landing page screenshot or mock-up to quickly identify major conversion issues. He has worked with Google, Facebook, American Express, CBS, Sony Music, Universal Studios, Verizon Wireless, Texas Instruments, and Coach.

Tim is a highly-regarded presenter at SES, eMetrics, PPC Summit, Affiliate Summit, PubCon, Affiliate Conference, and LeadsCon. He is the chairperson of, the first conference focused on improving online conversions. A columnist for several publications including ClickZ, he's host of the weekly Landing Page Optimization show and podcast on His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

He received his B.S. and M.S. during his Ph.D. studies at UC San Diego. Tim is the author of the bestselling book, "Landing Page Optimization."

Connect with Tim on Google+.

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