A single English language website can still allow you to reach an international audience. English is the most commonly used language online and to some extent it still serves as a lingua franca or common language across the Web. But it only represents around a quarter of total usage, and many visitors who use English as a second language place more trust in websites written in their own native language.
A survey by Eurobarometer found that nearly half of Internet users in the European Union visited foreign language websites (typically English) at least occasionally. However, only 18 percent said they would frequently buy online in another language, and 42 percent said they would never buy online in a language that was not their own.
The answer, if you’re serious about reaching out to international markets, is localization. This is the process of adapting your website for specific target markets.
Design Your Website With Localization in Mind
It can help the localization process later if you build a certain amount of flexibility into your primary website from the start. This means keeping your language relatively simple and unambiguous. This is a good tip for most Web content anyway, but it can really help simplify the translation process.
It can also help if you minimize specific cultural references, humor, and images that might not cross cultural barriers and could even cause offense. This doesn’t mean you have to cut such elements out entirely, as doing so could leave your site feeling dry and characterless, but they shouldn’t be so prominent that they cannot be easily removed or adapted during localization.
In terms of building the website, using cascading style sheets (CSS) can be useful, as this allows you to overlay elements, keeping your content separate from the design. This will give you more flexibility, letting you alter the content without having to start the page again from scratch. CSS also allows you to switch relatively easily from languages which run from left to right (like English) to those which read from right to left (like Hebrew and Arabic).
Choose Your Target Markets
Localization can be a cumbersome process so it can help to limit your efforts to your most important target markets at first. Google Analytics’ Geotargeting tool will allow you to see where people are visiting your current site from, but if you are considering active expansion into new markets you should carry out thorough market research first.
You should also decide whether you want to target your markets by country or by language. Some languages are widely spoken in more than one country, either officially or by a significant proportion of the population. Spanish, for example, is widely spoken in Spain and much of Latin America, including the huge emerging markets of Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela. It’s also an official language of Puerto Rico and, according to the 2010 US Census, almost 37 million Americans speak Spanish as their primary language at home.
A single Spanish language website could therefore be used to target customers in a number of different countries. This will obviously be cheaper and easier than constructing a localized site for each but there are some drawbacks. Firstly, there can be regional variations in language usage. The Spanish spoken in Spain, for example, has certain differences in vocabulary to that spoken in Latin America, particularly when it comes to the usage of slang and colloquialisms. There will also be distinct cultural differences. This means that all language and cultural references on the site should be appropriate and able to “cross over” to Spanish-speaking visitors from each target country.
Targeting by country allows you to tailor your content and specific keywords to those particular markets, using appropriate cultural references and images where required. In search engine optimization (SEO) terms, you also have the advantage of being able to use a country-code top-level domain, such as .fr for France or .br for Brazil. This will give your rankings a boost on local searches and can also give your site a more local feel, which can help engineer a sense of trust.
Customize Your Content
Finally, it’s time to localize your content. This can be done with automatic translation programs, but working with native speaking translators will generally yield better results, achieving a more natural flow and helping to avoid any contextual errors or cultural faux pas. Pay special attention to foreign language keyword research and placement and make sure that prices, currencies, date and time formats, and other details are all appropriate to the target market.
You don’t always need to include every page of your parent site on your new localized versions. You will certainly need a landing page and all the content that allows a visitor to do what they want to (and, hopefully, what you want them to do) when they visit your site. This will generally include browsing and ordering your products and services. It might not involve reading lengthy mission statements and corporate histories.
Localizing your website can be a daunting prospect but if you plan ahead you can easily streamline the process. It can also be a valuable way of reaching new customers, making it worth all the time and resources you spend.