Answer: The answer is typically both. Language is most often determined automatically by the Web site visitor's browser so that the appropriate language is displayed, if available. For example, if the browser is set to French, the visitor should see the French version of your company's Web site.
At the same time, many large companies are building "global gateways." This is an entry page that all users view when they first click to your company's page, where they can set their country of preference for the next visit. In the French example, the visitor could be from France, Canada, Belgium or any other French-speaking country. Giving visitors the ability to select their country opens up the opportunity to target different messages to visitors based on their individual country, not their language.
Whether adopting a global gateway or a drop-down menu choice, we recommend that you think carefully about the markets you serve and how you have localized the Web site. If you operate in 25 countries, it is appropriate to consider hosting a site for each country, even if the content is largely the same on every site. This becomes another way to showcase the breadth of your global footprint, tailor messages based on the mix of products available and reach your prospects in their native languages.
If you do choose to base your choices on countries, be sure to consider the national languages of each one. In Belgium, your visitors may speak Dutch, French or English, and it may be considered offensive to offer only one language. In India, U.K. English is the common language of business, but if you are selling products to consumers, you may need to translate your site into Hindi or another of the 15 most widely spoken Indic languages.
Kevin Bolen is chief marketing officer of Lionbridge Technologies (www.lionbridge.com), a provider of Web globalization and localization solutions.