5 Ways to Win at Website Localization

Robert Laing is the founder of myGengo, a 500 Startups company that helps businesses all over the world go global with convenient, affordable and high quality human translation service that scales.

Let’s delve into the topic of website localization to learn exactly what every company needs before going global. But first, to define localization: the translation and adaptation of content for foreign markets. Simple enough, right?

Now, take a close look at five important points to remember when it comes to website localization. 

1. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Let’s assume that the images on your company website are already geared towards your intended audience. When going global, it’s best to rely on images that are culturally appropriate and sensitive. Do this well and you’ll boost your company’s ability to connect with those visiting the site, not to mention, foster a healthy relationship with potential customers.

Let’s take a look at an example of good website localization. In the screenshot above, notice how Zynga Japan, the company behind Farmville and Cityville, incorporates the Japanese flag into its homepage banner. Clearly, the image is appropriate for a website intended for a Japanese audience.

Don’t forget that the way one audience perceives a particular image can differ greatly from another reacts. And then there’s the fact that what’s acceptable for one target market can take on an entirely different meaning for another. For example, a thumbs-up gesture in one culture is a positive affirmation, whereas in another, it could mean, “Up yours, pal!

Keep these things in mind when localizing the company site and you’ll be one step closer to connecting with your target market. Here are some other things to consider.

  • Attention to Detail: Mistaking the Italian and Mexican flags, for example, is bad news.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: People have strong feelings about things like colors, symbols and metaphors. Does the color white symbolize purity or death for your intended audience?
  • Risk Assessment: Aim to avoid any unintended consequences that could be embarrassing or potentially hazardous to your company.

The bottom line: When building trust and earning customer loyalty is the objective, images can make all the difference in the world.

2. Adapt and Adjust

Make no mistake, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work with website localization. People do things differently around the world; therefore, companies going global must adapt and adjust to succeed. Let’s compare the English and Japanese websites of Rakuten, the company behind the largest online shopping mall in Japan, to explain this further.

Notice that the Rakuten USA website (above) is simple and clean when compared to the Rakuten Japan website (below). Of course, know that Japanese websites can oftentimes appear overly busy to the non-native eye.

In a blog post titled The Puzzle of Japanese Design, Sean Hussey, former employee of Rakuten USA, offers his perspective about the Japanese company: “We tried to develop our products with clean designs and interfaces, which came in direct contrast with the home company’s approach. It was understood as a cultural difference…Japanese sites are full of text, images, animations, clashing colors and scroll-scroll-scrolling layout choices.”

The bottom line: The style and design of a well-localized site means staying consistent with local norms so it looks and feels familiar and usable to your audience.

3. One Language, Two, or a Combination of Both?

Question: If a major component of the localization process is content translation, then why do some companies purposely exclude the translation of certain keywords, tabs, menus, taglines and slogans when localizing their website?

The short answer is that no one ever said website translation had to be an all-or-nothing process. In fact, in some cases it can be beneficial for a company website to blur the language lines rather than opt to translate the whole thing from start to finish. If you want to see this in action then check out the Japanese myGengo site.

Now let’s take a look at one example: Airbnb‘s website is used by people around the globe looking for local accommodations away from home. Specifically, Airbnb provides a platform for its users to rent from “real people in 19,732 cities in 192 countries.” The tagline appears on the company website, where I’d now like to draw your attention. 

In these two screenshots, notice the tagline used for the Chinese version is in English (not Chinese), yet the Italian version of the website has been remained in its local language. Why one and not the other? Also, check out the photograph of the happy friends at the top of the page. In both examples, the words below the image are in English, and haven’t been translated into Chinese or Italian. This is because localization isn’t always a science — it’s an art too.

Here are some points to keep in mind when tackling the language component of your website localization.

  • Language Lengths: Some languages appear longer when written or typed. Do the words “Invite Your Friends” fit as nicely in Italian as they do in English?
  • Emphasis: Foreign languages are cool. If you want to make your page pop, using a non-native language might be your secret weapon. Just be careful with translation!
  • International Appeal: Localization is all about going global. Translating some (not all) of the content on your site into another language might be an excellent way to strengthen your international appeal.

The bottom line: When done in moderation, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mixing languages on a localized website.

4. To Translate or Not to Translate, That Is the Question

A company’s slogan/tagline can be one of its most important branding assets. When a memorable phrase follows a company’s name, people are more inclined to remember it. That said, making a brand stick in the hearts and minds of potential customers is by no means an easy feat. This is especially true when crossing borders and languages.

What is the most effective way for a company to keep its brand identity strong as it expands into new markets around the world? It all depends. Here are a few points worth mentioning.

  • Brand Identity: Consistency plays an important role in maintaining a company’s image.
  • Nuances: Culture systems, belief systems and worldviews shape the way we think about the words we use.
  • Target Audience: Know your audience. What may be considered funny in one language may be insulting in another.

Let’s take two examples.

A. Wikipedia, The Translation Path

Wikipedia, a company with a clear and precise mission (to be the free encyclopedia of the world), has a tagline to echo its vision. In the screenshot to the left, you’ll see the same tagline translated into each of Wikipedia’s languages.

In this case, when translating the phrase “the free encyclopedia,” there isn’t too much room for a mistranslation (don’t hold me to that). If you believe the same holds true for your company’s tagline/slogan, then perhaps opting for the translation might be a great idea.

B. Facebook, The Non-Translation Path: Everyone knows Facebook has completely changed the way people communicate with the world, but how does Facebook communicate with its users? Let’s compare the English with the Japanese version of the Facebook homepage to see what stands out.

The English page says, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” The Japanese page says, “Using Facebook, you can connect with friends, colleagues and classmates to deepen your connections. Also access Facebook from cell phones and smartphones.”
Notice that the Japanese page mentions users can access the site with phones, but the English page doesn’t. That’s probably because 95% of the Japanese population are mobile subscribers. The same study explains that Japan uses the mobile Internet more than any other country in the world. It appears Facebook crafted its Japanese homepage with this point in mind. So, what can we learn here? If you want to maximize your outreach potential, you’d better know your target market inside and out.

The bottom line: Having a carefully localized slogan/tagline for your company can be an effective way to foster relationships with potential customers in new markets.

5. Down to the Last Detail

A successfully localized website is one that appears to have been developed locally, even when it wasn’t. Since localization mistakes and oversights can be awkward for website users and potentially embarrassing for the company, make sure to get it right — it’s absolutely worth the time and effort. The last thing any company wants is to turn away potential customers from its website before those visitors ever have a chance to experience the product or service. Generally speaking, website localization means giving some extra attention to things like:

  • Dates: Month, day, year vs. day, month, year.
  • Time: 12-hour vs. 24-hour time.
  • Color: Avoid local color sensitivities.
  • Currency: Pay attention to conversions and formats.
  • Phone Numbers: Formats are different around the world.
  • National Holidays: Holidays are country and region specific.
  • Geographic Examples: Keep it relevant for your audience.
  • Website Language CodesISO codes are important to know.

Let’s take a look at the two images above. The first image was taken from Apple’s U.S. website, and the second from the UK website. Can you spot the differences between the two? Here’s what I came up with.

  • Date: U.S.: May 19, 2012 vs UK: 19-May-2012.
  • Time: U.S.: 9:41 a.m, vs. UK: 09:41.
  • Color: Look closely at the colors behind the girl.
  • Bonus: What’s going on behind the girl’s shoulder in the UK version of the photo. Is that a tail?

The bottom line: When the aim is to make it look like you’ve developed the website in your target market, the details are incredibly important.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it: what every company needs to know when localizing its website. With the help of the Internet, expanding into new markets continues to become easier than ever before. Of course, going global, and doing it with style, requires a strategic game plan, a comprehensive vision. Good luck, and we’ll see you out there soon!

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, tumpikuja

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