The ‘U.S. Wide Web’ It Ain’t

It’s 6 a.m. I’m in Holland, about seven miles north of the Belgian border. Looks like it’s going to be a nice day — the sun isn’t up yet, but already it’s about 40 degrees. After meeting with IBM the day before, I got a call last night from one of its product people alerting me to a merger between two major business application players. (Turned out to be untrue, by the way.)

I inch my way sleepily to my desk, plug my laptop in, log on and head over to individual.com to see what I can learn about it. The personalized news service greets me with its usual focused message:

“Good evening Michael.”

Evening? Welcome to the United States Wide Web.

As the web matures and its business-to-business nature reveals itself, it’s vital that we realize that its reach is not focused on just the U.S.A.; it’s the world that’s touched by the World Wide Web. And when I log in to a service that’s available worldwide, to be greeted with a message that’s driven by a U.S. time zone, I see a slight flaw in an otherwise excellent service.

The world at large — especially the European world — is now well out of infancy when it comes to the web. The analysts agree that the leaders are Sweden, the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany — places where I spend roughly a third of a month, every month. And the rest of the continent is not far behind. (That’s why I spend so much time here.)

What’s more, and perhaps even more important, is how Europeans are adopting the web and are moving toward doing business on the web. It may be uniquely American to have turned to the notion of retail sales as its first movement into online business — “Ah, hah!” we say. “Another great way to increase sales of Tickle Me muppets!”

But retail sales — which are now predicated to ultimately constitute only about ten percent of e-business — are much lower on the horizon of the Europeans. They are moving rapidly toward determining how to put e-business — of which the web plays just one role — into play with a strongly B2B focus. And it’s going to happen at a dazzling speed.

So U.S. companies that want to be global B2B players — the most powerful promise of the web — need to present themselves properly to the global market. Here are just a couple of quick thoughts about what you should do:

  1. Run a U.S. English minesweeper over your text. There’s not much problem with the spelling side of things (color versus colour presents no difficulty), but Americanisms are not well understood over here. (I’ve learned painfully not to use the phase knee jerk reaction because nobody knows what it means.)

  2. Register your web site for as many country-specific TLDs as you can (acme.se, acme.nl and so on).
  3. Translate your site into the language of the key countries you want to penetrate.
  4. Register your site on the search engines used most often by people in the countries you’re targeting (e.g., Fireball for German speakers and search.ch for Swiss netizens). Here’s a good place to find them — many of the engines are not in English… but that’s the point isn’t it?

Let’s go back to the opening of this article: “6 a.m.”? Try “0600” if you want universal understanding. “Seven miles north”? For most of the world that would be better expressed as about “11 kilometers north.” “Inch my way”: What in the world does that mean? And to almost everyone but Americans, “40 degrees” would be a scorcher at any time of day when measured in the more universal Celsius.

In short, keep your online business clearly focused on the real marketplace to which you’re visible, and away from the narrow, shady lanes of Elm Street, U.S.A.

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