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There are a number of challenges any business or organization must face when localizing its website. There are issues to do with translation, design, functionality, SEO and cultural adaptation. Website localization can represent a considerable commitment in terms of time and resources and the obvious first question is whether localization is worth all the effort in the first place.
The Swiss-based trade body Localization Industry Standards Association (since replaced by the Industry Specification Group (ISG) for localization) has reported that localization can result in an ROI of $25 for every $1 spent.
Even if that figure represents the top end of the scale, the advantages of localization seem pretty clear. English is the most commonly used language online but it still represents only around a quarter of usage worldwide. Additionally, many surfers who visit English language websites use English as a second language.
A survey by Eurobarometer found that 48% of internet users in the European Union visited English language websites at least occasionally. Only 18% said they would frequently buy online in another language however, and 42% said they would never buy online in a language that was not their own.
Localization allows you to target audiences who would otherwise be unreachable and to talk to multilingual users in their own language.
Most companies spend a lot of time and effort making sure they get their main native language website right. By building in a measure of adaptability at the design stage, you can make sure you don’t have to start again from scratch for every localized site.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allow you to keep site content separate for design. This in turn gives you the flexibility to alter elements of your site without having to ditch the whole thing. Similarly, UTF-8 is the most commonly used character encoding tool and again it can afford a lot of flexibility. It’s compatible with more than 90 written scripts, including non-Latin alphabets such as Arabic and Japanese, and non-standard Latin characters like the Scandinavian Ø and Æ.
You also have to bear in mind that some languages tend to take up more space than others. For example, German has a tendency to long words, which can be difficult to slot into areas such as menus and drop-down boxes.
Since English reads from left to right, it seems natural to have menus arranged vertically on the left-hand side of the page. But the opposite is more common in right-to-left languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic. CSS can handle the switch in direction quite easily, but repositioning menus can be trickier. One solution is to arrange menus horizontally at the top of the page.
As well as practical design issues, there are cultural preferences to take in to account. According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, high context cultures such as Japan and Arabic countries draw a lot of their conclusions from the context of a situation. They prefer intuitive, interactive website design. This may include lots of images, animations and new browser windows that can be viewed simultaneously or flicked between.
Low context cultures, such as North America and Germany, prefer to have information set out clearly and concisely, with more explicit instructions. These can include informational text, clear menus and a more linear progression through the site.
Coca Cola, for example, is a true global brand with a strong core identity. The company’s current Chinese site features animation and prominent images. The menus are represented by icons, with text appearing only when you hover over each one. The German site is entirely different. It’s almost tabular in format, with clean white space and concise blocks of text.
Web writing differs from many other forms of writing. People have a tendency to scan text online and expect to find the information they’re looking for very quickly. It’s usually best to keep your web content simple. This can be doubly important if you are targeting an international audience.
Simple, neutral language that avoids too many culture or country-specific references is both easier for the multilingual visitor who visits your main site and easier to translate for your localized site.
That’s not to say that your content has to be bland, or contain no cultural references at all. The whole point of localization is to communicate with your target market on their own terms. If you really want to personalize your localized sites, working with native language translators who have experience in content creation will allow you to trans-create rather than simply translate. This is the process of adapting your content for a new audience while retaining your core message and identity.
Native translators can also help catch the sort of contextual errors that automatic translation programs are prone to throw up, and avoid any cultural faux pas.