The world wide web puts the world at your fingertips and, more importantly, puts your website at the fingertips of the world.

That’s the theory at least. In reality, a little forethought and planning is required if you want to both reach and appeal to a cross-cultural audience.

English is still the most widely used language on the internet, according to Internet World Stats, but simplified Chinese is a close second and more than a billion web surfers use a language other than English.

Clearly there’s a huge potential audience that will never be able to access a single-language website, which conversely means a potentially huge audience for you, if you take the step of expanding multilingually.

Translation options

There are a number of options for translating content, depending on budget and time constraints. The simplest is to use a translation widget such as Google Translate, which will allow visitors to machine translate your content into a language of their choice. Alternatively, you could build inline translation code into your site, allowing for instant, intuitive machine translation, with the language changing depending on the location of the visitor’s IP address.

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If using either of these options you should keep your original copy simple, avoiding flowery language and culture-specific references and jokes. Even so, there’s the potential for any automatic translation system to throw up grammatical mistakes and subtle or not-so-subtle differences in meaning. Getting your copy translated by a native speaker of your target country will help retain the nuances of meaning and avoid any cultural faux pas.

Keywords

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Even if you’re using an automatic translation system for your content, keywords should be researched separately. The keywords that rank highest for your content on Google.co.uk might not be the best on Google.fr or on a local competitor such as Seznam (the most popular search engine in the Czech Republic). Popular localized search terms might include abbreviations, colloquialisms or synonyms and local knowledge, along with thorough research, is needed here.

Tools and Navigation

Cascading style sheets (CSS) allow for content to be altered without having to redesign each page from scratch. They also make it relatively easy to flip a page template or reverse the direction of text, since some languages (such as Arabic and Hebrew) are written from right-to-left. Navigation bars in left-to-right languages such as English are often positioned vertically on the left-hand side of the page and may need to be switched for a right-to-left script. Of course, using a horizontal bar from the start will negate the need for re-positioning and will allow you to keep the same design template for your localized sites or pages.

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Unicode UTF-8 will also help in terms of flexibility. A character-encoding tool compatible with over 90 written languages and supported by most common browsers, UTF-8 will allow you to use non-Latin scripts such as Arabic. Even if you don’t plan to target anywhere outside western Europe, it incorporates extra characters from extended Latin alphabets such as the German Ä, Ö, Ü and ß or the Swedish Å, Ä and Ö.

Design considerations

Colours can add a lot to the aesthetics of a website. Black or white text and green or blue backgrounds are generally considered the most universally appealing options, but it should be remembered that some colours have different connotations in different cultures. White can symbolize marriage in the West, but it commonly implies death and mourning in much of the East, while green can represent nature (or possibly Ireland) in Europe, but it’s also the holy color of Islam.

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Care should also be taken with images. A holiday company website in the UK might feature attractive women in bikinis, but this might be deemed offensive in more conservative cultures. You should also avoid using too much Flash, as not every geographical area has access to high speed broadband. If you really want a graphics-heavy, all-singing, all-dancing website, it may be worth offering a simplified HTML-only version alongside to cater for the bandwidth-impaired.

Domains and Servers

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It’s another question of resources, but having a localized site with its own country code top-level domain (for example .fr for France or .au for Australia) will help boost your rankings on Google’s local search engine (Google.fr, Google.com.au) and any local search engines, like the Czech Republic’s Seznam. Ensuring the site is hosted on a server physically located in the target country will also help to boost your rankings.

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