Want more hits? Give your site global appeal

14th Mar 2009 | 08:00

Want more hits? Give your site global appeal

Communicate with the world without diluting your brand

Multi-level content

Increasingly, organisations want to do business worldwide. The internet is ideal for this, but just getting online isn't enough. It's becoming more and more essential to be sensitive to local markets while maintaining a coherent global presence.

Taking a site global involves more than just translating the text into different language, says Jon Wiley, user experience designer at Google. "You must consider local content and voice," he says. "Content should be relevant and appropriate. Compliance with local laws should be considered, as should currency and date formats."

You can't rely on a one-size-fits-all proposition, nor cut corners. Each aspect of a site must be reviewed from a global and local perspective, including design, colour, language and content. Furthermore, you must be mindful of providing support to worldwide users: after all, start selling to Japanese people on a Japanese-language version of your website, and you'd be a fool to be shocked when Japanese support requests start coming in.

Multi-level content

Get the mix right and there's plenty of potential to escape from the confines of local business. A successful global website will be much more cost-effective than creating numerous standalone sites for local markets.

Tom Muller of Kleber notes how even in the music industry, where the unique nature of site design is prized, it's common to build a global site that caters for everyone's needs. "You can create a much more focused marketing campaign by serving mostly the same content worldwide, and filtering some content on a regional basis for things like tour dates and releases," he says.

Muller's methodology appears commonplace: base a site on a locked-down structure for serving international content, and assign certain components to be editable on a regional or local basis, creating a balance between worldwide consistency and local flexibility. "You need to dedicate certain elements, such as campaigns and promotions, to local content," says Ben Sargent, content globalisation strategist at Common Sense Advisory Research.

"Some pages should be flagged at template level as under the control of local marketing teams. By granting full control of specific content, local teams become empowered and you'll find some of the best creative work is contributed at that level."

Enabling some local control also solves certain design problems. Specific colours can have negative connotations in certain countries, and so the ability to override interface elements and backgrounds if needed is key when working on the framework for a global website.

Ané-Mari Peter, co-founder of on-IDLE, recommends taking particular care when it comes to imagery, since images often have direct meanings and significance in various cultures. "For example," she says, "many sites employ thumbs-up and thumbsdown icons for voting, but that gesture means different things in different places."

Anyone well-versed in standards and general web design best practice already has a head-start when entering the international arena. "Standardsbased sites that separate structure from styling can be built with flexibility in mind," says Opera web evangelist Henny Swan. "If your site works without CSS and JavaScript, and it gives a proper structure, it will be easier to localise. For example, by using this approach you can overlay colours and typography sensitive to the cultural norms of those you're targeting, without having to recode everything."

Mind your language

Outside of structural concerns, language and translation are the most important considerations when it comes to global websites. From a design point of view, text-oriented elements need to have the flexibility to expand or contract to cater for various languages.

From a technical standpoint, you must use the correct character encoding (Wiley: "I'll keep it short: use UTF-8") and define the language in which the content is written, something that also aids screen readers. The direction of text can also prove problematic when pages aren't unidirectional, at which point extra testing is required, to deal with browser bugs.

Your CMS must be capable of accommodating the languages you're working with, but must also be scalable on demand, so new territories can be added easily. "Instead of splitting content per language, the way Kleber develops multilingual sites is by using a territory system," explains Muller. "This provides extra flexibility, in that if a site doesn't yet have, say, a Spanish version, users selecting 'Spain' get served Englishlanguage content, but with news relevant to Spain."

Even the language- and locale-selection convention used is something that needs thinking about. Flags alone aren't a perfect indicator. Swan notes: "They can be misleading: as a UK resident, I won't attempt to buy anything from a site with an American flag on it as I expect the currency to be in dollars and delivery fees to be higher." Also, countries like Switzerland have several official languages, so a flag alone isn't enough.

Some recommend combining flags with country and locale selectors, but others suggest alternate methods of accessing a language and local content, such as making use of local domains, auto-detecting a user's preferred language via browser settings, or automating selection via IP addresses.

Amazon.com uses IP addresses particularly intelligently, offering a 'switch' choice when browsing from another country. Ultimately, a combination of methods works best, and if automation is used or assumptions made, users must be able to access alternate languages in a usable and straightforward manner.

Translation tips

When it comes to translation, slogans should be avoided. "At best, they don't translate directly, and at worst, you'll look foolish," says Brian McConnell, leader of the Worldwide Lexicon Project. Even seemingly basic concepts can suffer, as Ané-Mari Peter notes: "The concept of 'go' doesn't exist in Arabic, which could therefore cause confusion if a typical search form was directly translated."

Some words may not need translating at all. "Many become absorbed into other languages and are spoken as-is," explains Swan. "In the same way our supermarkets use French words like julienne or croissant, technical terms like 'podcast' and 'email', are widely accepted, and are often preferred."

Automated translation often produces near gibberish, and it's certainly unlikely to respect the differences between variants of a language. "A poorly translated UI is more likely to offend users than none at all," argues Wiley. "It's such a clear indication that you didn't care enough about that audience to invest resources in making a great experience for them."

There are exceptions: Sargent notes that if you add a facility for users to perform their own 'machine translation' in situ, they'll accept the loss of fidelity that ensues: "But if, as a publisher, you 'push' your content to them using MT, they will not comprehend why your site is rubbish. Your brand suffers immediate damage."

Since translators need context, this is an area in which humans excel, although it's important that those doing translation work understand cultural references. "If you've spent time writing great copy in one language that expresses the voice in your brand, you must ensure that's heard through translation," says Wiley.

Today, though, there's the potential for technology and an increasingly savvy audience to reduce traditionally high translation and localisation costs. "There are better and better tools for localising web applications without reinventing the wheel," says McConnell. "The Worldwide Lexicon, for example, offers a simple JavaScript tool that dynamically re-renders any web page in other languages, by replacing original texts with human-generated translations that are stored in a cloudbased translation memory. This makes localising a site easy, and is seamless for the user."

In terms of translation itself, the buzzword on modern lips is crowdsourcing: the outsourcing of tasks to large groups via open calls. Facebook uses this technique to encourage users to translate its site, although, as Swan warns, crowdsourcing only really works when people are inspired to contribute. "It's unlikely to work in a corporate context, and aside from quality-control issues, there's no control over branding and house style unless an editor is employed to do the final edit."

However, crowd sourcing can be a great way of getting a quick translation done if accuracy isn't vital immediately, enabling you to make corrections later as time and finances allow. And combining crowdsourcing for non-critical content with traditional translation techniques for authoritative documents enables you to involve the community, get rapid peer review on content, but not compromise important components.

This is beneficial from an SEO and popularity standpoint: as Tim Gibbons, director of Elemental notes: "If you can get content regularly updated and translated, it's new and vibrant content that sustains an audience."

Looking forward

Once the site's online, that's far from the end of the story. "Most first-time localisers only think about how to get their translated content up on the site," claims Sargent. "Soon that content's out of date, and they've no process for updating it."

While software exists for making such tasks easier, Sargent underlines the importance of processes. "Companies should set up a manual workflow before trying to automate it," he recommends, wryly adding that you can't automate a process that doesn't exist. "Once participants understand what steps happen when, software can help."

Once you have a site talking to people in dozens of countries, they're going to want to talk to you. If you only have capabilities to deal with your native tongue, the repercussions can be disastrous. As a 'foreigner', lose the confidence of a new market and it'll be hard to win back.

The solution is to have someone on the ground in relevant countries, or to employ in-house expertise for languages you're dealing in. If you can't afford that kind of infrastructure, there are still things you can do. As Hepburn explains: "Social media can help when it comes to global websites. Many sites have users that can be used as experts to help and support."

He cites Facebook as an example of a site with dozens of support communities and networks, but notes that it's feasible to set up something yourself. "For a travel site I worked on, we set up a global blog solution, enabling users to contact people in other countries and in different languages," he says. Instead of paying for content and support, you're providing a means for people to create it – and in their own language.

This kind of crowdsourcing is often highly successful, as long as you fully ensure the systems in place are managed and robust.

The McDonald's effect

The counter-argument to business globalisation is that it forces compromise. To appeal to everyone and avoid offending anyone, design and content must become bland and homogenised, resulting in the digital equivalent of a fast-food burger.

As we've seen, though, a level of local customisation can get around that problem, and Sargent isn't even sure the argument holds much sway anyway. "Many strong brands go global based on national characteristics," he says, citing German engineering companies and Italian design houses that retain national characteristics because that's what makes the brand desirable, regardless of location. "Part of what global consumers seek is tied up in national characteristics: functional Nordic design from Ikea, dependable Japanese quality from Toyota."

According to Sargent, since national brand attributes are often invisible in their home markets, due to being assumed and not distinctive in that environment, they can massively benefit when taken further afield. "And being locally relevant does not require you to strip away your natural colouring," he says. "As you leave your home market, comport your brand as a representative of your home country. Be self-aware. Strengthen your brand with one or more attributes from the tried and true arsenal of national identity. Make it part of your appeal."

Going global is more than slapping some flags and translated text on to a website. It's a tough proposition of balancing local and international needs; of retaining what makes a brand work but also ensuring it speaks to everyone positively.

You must take on all the core values of a standard website – strong branding, consistent design, relevance – and also address region-specific requirements. Get it right and you've a vehicle for tapping into minds and wallets worldwide, rather than just the ones outside your local virtual door.

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First published in .net, Issue 186

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