Lost in translation

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It's a given that the Web makes it easier to take your business global. Why, then, according to JupiterResearch senior analyst W. Gregory Dowling, do many companies end up going back to their local default design after 12 to 18 months? The cost and risks of creating an internationally targeted site-especially one in a different language-may outweigh the benefits for many, he said.

"There's a huge cost associated with localization and translation of a corporate Web site," he said. "Cost-benefit analysis should be done at the very early stages. At the very least, you should have 10% to 25% of your traffic and revenue coming from outside the U.S. [before you design an international site] to make the process justifiable."

Even if you do meet those criteria, there's still plenty to think about, he said. One of the most significant issues, which can also be the most unwieldy and expensive, is language.

The Local Vernacular

The real challenge is truly understanding cultural diversity. There can be several languages and dialects-not to mention different industry terminologies-in a single country or even city. So while it might seem intuitive that your Russian site would be translated into Russian, it's not enough to do a straight language translation, said Michael Koziol, exec VP-North America for interactive agency nurun|ant farm interactive. "You need to do localization, which is very different from translation," he said.

Localization takes into account slang, language composition, customs and social mores, as well as encompassing both text and images. It requires someone who is on the ground in your target country to do the original translation, or fact-check every page of your site, to make sure it doesn't come out sounding like the equivalent of a stilted fortune cookie.

Language is only the first part of localizing your site, however. People in different countries tend to navigate Web sites differently. For some, it's a technical limitation; while broadband is fairly ubiquitous in most countries, there are still plenty of places that have slow Internet connections. This means your flashy splash page that works in North America might not work in the Middle East. Culturally, there are many people who navigate for utility, so they require a much shorter entrance path, said Stephen Wray, president-CEO of Cadient Group, an interactive agency.

"You really have to test and look at visit value indexes to see what the pathways are," he said. "You have to see what visitors in a particular country [are doing] to see what the value of a visit is to them."

Not Just a Technicality

Once the abstract issues are out of the way, it's time to think about implementing your site. One of the most basic technical considerations, getting a local URL for your international site, is also the easiest problem to remedy, said Ed Stojakovic, interactive marketing manager at Aon Corp., a human resources and insurance consultancy.

"People tend to like to go to their own local markets first," he said. "In France, people are more likely to go to a site that has `.fr' as the suffix; `.com' is considered more of a U.S.-based service."

Companies must decide whether it's worth it to publish content on local Web servers, or keep everything in the U.S. or build in transactional support in every country.

Wray said many of his pharmaceutical and health care clients face this question. "It's really important to dedicate enough time to do an in-depth technical assessment and look at what's needed," he said. "If you look at the pharmaceutical market, you can't do too many transactions in the U.S.; it's all about content, disease analysis and marketing. But there are transactions that can occur in other countries-you can fill prescriptions-so you'd have to design a site where that can happen."

Search engine optimization is a separate conversation for every individual site you create because the keywords you use for the U.S. version of Google, for example, might not be the same as the ones you'd use for the Italian version of Google.

Finally, there's the content management piece of the puzzle. Everything should be managed centrally, said Kevin Rees, president of Language Works!, a translation and editing service.

"You need a content management system that supports multiple languages, lets you define roles-authors, approvers, translators-and is work flow enabled. There are going to be a lot of people involved, and having clear actions and definition of roles is key," Rees said.

What to Leave Alone

There are some things that should be different from country to country. Job postings, for instance, as well as contact information, driving directions and images should reflect what's actually available in a particular country. Pricing differences and service offerings should also be taken into account, Rees said.

"You really have to decide what about your business is actually global," he said. "There might be strategic partnerships that are used to penetrate different marketplaces. There might be services that are only available in certain countries. The decision of global versus regional content should be based not just on the branding strategy but also on the e-commerce vision of the business' global expansion."

You also need to make sure that you're observing rules and obeying laws from country to country. If a country has specific tariffs or taxation, that must be built into every page or transaction. Also, you may not be able to offer every service or product in every marketplace.

Even so, you'll raise your odds of success, said JupiterResearch's Dowling, if you manage even your various sites' differences from the same platform. "The best practice is to manage from a global centralized repository," he said.

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