Let's start with a truism: the web is global.Anyone from Kansas and Kentucky, to Kenya and Korea can access the same online information, at the same time but from completely different corners of the Earth. And that really is rather amazing, even if most of us do now take it for granted.
But what does that mean for all the web designers, bloggers, entrepreneurs and businesses of the world? Well, anyone in business will probably have a website already, and if you don't, then you really should reconsider your position as a business person.
And those who simply blog to let off some steam or get their thoughts, views or expert analysis out into the wider world may not even be thinking in monetary terms yet – be it dollars, pounds or yen.
Indeed, some blogs never get more than a handful of visitors, whilst others mushroom into something quite incredible – look no further than Mashable for such an example.
But the one thing that all websites have in common is they're global. Digital has helped blur international boundaries, which means there is a need to write, design and communicate with the wider-world in mind.
Running an online business can be an incredibly lucrative endeavor if executed correctly. And if you've only thus far operated in English, you should probably realize that:
- 75% of the Earth's population don't speak English
- 40% of the online population is in Asia
- China has 30% more people online than the US
- Over half of all Google searches aren't in English
- People simply prefer to operate in their native tongue…even if they are bilingual
So whether you're just launching a new internet enterprise, or you're simply reaching saturation point in your domestic market, you could do a lot worse than look to foreign lands to increase your revenue.
There are three key considerations you need to make when constructing a website to be ‘multilingual friendly', and these are: design, localization and optimization.
A design for life
By the design, we're talking about both the behind the scenes structure and the front end interface. Don't worry…this won't get too technical.
Okay, whether you design your website yourself, or have someone do it for you, remember this: not all languages are the same length. Crazy, huh?
German tends to use pretty long words compared to its English equivalents Bãstenhalter, is a bra for instance. And some languages are a lot shorter than English – æƒ… å ± is Japanese for ‘information' – a mere two characters.
Why do you need to know this? Well, because if you ever convert your blog/website into other languages you may end up not having enough space for your text, or you may end up having large blank spaces, depending on what language you you're translating into (see more on translation in the ‘localization' part below).
To get around this issue you need to keep your content and design separate – text must be allowed to expand/contract without space issues, so you're best using cascading style sheets (CSS) which help keep these two aspects apart. Ultimately it means you won't have to redesign your pages from scratch in other languages.
From the front end perspective, it's worth remembering that colors and symbols can mean different things in different cultures.
For example, an ‘owl' is normally symbolic of wisdom and grace in western cultures. But in many Arabic countries, owls can represent pessimism.
And if you happen to have a picture of a green hat on your website (maybe you sell hats online?), in China this signifies a man's wife has been unfaithful to him. In addition to your graphics, color also plays a big part in your website's ‘look and feel' – and colors can mean different things across the globe.
Red, for example, tends to denote danger or passion in western countries. But red can also mean communism in some countries (e.g. Russia). Similarly, orange is the color of Halloween or ‘fall' in the US, in Ireland Orange is synonymous with Protestantism.
There are many similar examples which help to demonstrate the meaning of color. Ever wonder why blue is used so much on the Web (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)? It's the most universally ‘safe' color and it generally denotes ‘trust'.
There's an old adage that to go global, you need to think local. Now, the chances are you won't have a big marketing/translation budget, so you need to do what you can with the tools at your disposal. Luckily, you can do quite a lot with the right approach.
Machine translation is often berated for its inaccurate, often comical results. But if truth be told, the likes of Google Translate isn't actually all that bad…if you're nice to it.
Google Translate will struggle if you give it text ridden with jargon and colloquialisms. And you also have to remember that English suffers somewhat of an excess of different words that mean the same thing: dog, mutt, hound; cash, money, bucks; chow, food, fodder. You get the point.
So by learning what Google translate likes, and what it doesn't, you can control your English text so that you increase your chance of getting a good translation. This will, of course, take time to hone.
For proper localization, however, you ideally want a native speaking translator involved at some stage, even if it's just to edit/proofread the text to ensure it is accurate and doesn't embarrass you too much.
This also means you can have a more flexible approach to your English writing, knowing that anything contentious from the machine will be picked up by the human!
In Google we trust…
The subject of multilingual SEO probably merits an entire article to itself. But for the sake of cutting to the chase, the one golden tenet of international website optimization is this: never translate your keywords directly into other languages.
Even a professionally qualified, native linguist won't know what people use to search for services and products locally. Hence, a correct dictionary translation of your high-ranking English keywords may be well wide of the mark. People may use abbreviations, synonyms or other variations of the search term, and this can only be established by doing some thorough keyword research for each of your target markets.
About the author
Christian Arno is Managing Director of Lingo24, a global language services company that specializes in website localization. With clients in over sixty countries and 130 full-time employees working across three continents, Lingo24 is on course for a turnover of $6m USD in 2010.