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Why Multi-lingual Makes Sense

By Alex Garden - NetInsites

According to IDC only 45 percent of current online users speak English, whereas 85 percent of Web pages are in English.

This percentage of English users will drop quickly over the next few years if estimates from Global Reach are correct.

As Dylan Tweney at Business2.0 says: "Most Websites take a Model T approach to overseas marketing: You can access them in any language you want, as long as it's English." (Editor's Note: The model T was the first car made by Ford Motor Company, it basic, and only available in black paint).

According to IDC only 45% of current online users speak English whereas 85 percent of Webpages are in English. Also this percentage of English users will drop quickly over the next few years if estimates from Global Reach are correct: . Their estimates showing the top five languages only are:

2001 (476 million users) 2003 (793 million users)

     English        45%     29%
     Chinese       8.4%   20.2%
     Spanish       4.5%   7.6%
     Japanese    9.8%   7.3%
     German       6.2%   5.8%

Although many non-English users can read English it's fairly obvious that making others speak your language is not the best way to cultivate a good relationship. Don't forget also that there will be speakers of other languages within your own country who will no doubt prefer their own language rather than English.

In fact the benefits of launching a local-language Website can be quite staggering:

According to Forrester Research Japanese businessmen are three times more likely to conduct an online transaction when addressed in Japanese.
Otis Elevator saw monthly online leads shoot from 130 to over 1000 after it launched local-language versions of its Website; 70% of the leads were from new customers.

However, although the benefits of multi-language sites are quite obvious, the work required to launch your Website in another language should not be underestimated. The use of free online translators is generally a waste of time as the nuances, slangs and idioms used in language are not recognised by such free software.

Even within the English language there are difficulties transporting content from say the United States to England, differences that go well beyond spelling words ending with "ise" instead of "ize", date formats or units of measure. There are a huge number of cultural differences and potential fishhooks like, as Tanya Field of Discovery Networks Europe points out, "Countries have different perspectives on who won the war [for the Allies]."

Other potential problems or extra things to think of are:

• One of the biggest headaches of course is in maintaining the site, as having another language version can severely increase the amount of work required when the site is updated.

• Graphics, as well as having all text altered; have to be examined as there may be some that are symbols of national pride or patriotism.

• Often slogans and captions contain plays on words that make no sense after translation. In 1996, Panasonic licensed the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker to serve as a user guide on the company's new Japanese-language Web site - it almost ended in complete disaster. The slogan ended up translated back into English as "Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker." :-)

• In many countries people are uneasy about giving their credit card details over the Web, so the whole sales process may have to be changed so that customers pick up and pay for their goods at a local collection point.

• Other cultural differences. For example even techniques like putting an X in a box, common on the Web for selecting items from a list, suggests that the items be excluded rather than included in Switzerland and Korea.

• The structure of the site should be such that Spanish users (for example) can always stay on Spanish pages and not have to use English at all.

For the larger more complex sites, content management systems from companies like Vignette and Interwoven are integrating translation and work flow tools into their products. Other companies also offer globalisation services on an outsourced, Application Service Provider (ASP), model.

As is often the case, the way you can gain the benefits of localizing the language of your Website is by thinking strategically about how you will internationalise it in the future. If you can make sure the content management system, whether basic or complex, is set up to handle the maintenance of multiple sites, then your ongoing costs will be far less.

The initial costs may be a little higher but downstream benefits can be immense.

Alex Garden

Alex runs Netinsites Email Alex at: [email protected] .

This article is supplied by Alex Garden, of NetInsites. Alex is a leading internet strategist and website designer who also specialises in website usability. Alex writes a long-standing, free fortnightly newsletter that you can subscribe to by email to: [email protected].

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