Companies are global enterprises worth billions mostly because they compete like locals. The good news is that this no longer requires a massive marketing budget. With a few simple changes you can turn your local success story into a global phenomenon.
1. Translate Your Content
In a world where English is accepted as the global language of commerce, translating your text may seem like an unnecessary burden. But just because customers can “understand” English doesn’t mean they will properly understand your English-only website or will choose your service if a competitor speaks in their native tongue.
As native English speakers account for only 25% of global web users, translating your webpage is the single most important thing you can do to take it global.
Choosing which languages to translate into is difficult, but generally, the more the better. If your idea works in one language, odds are good that it will work in another language as well. Once you have translated your webpage it is critical to keep the translations up to date with any changes you make to your English pages.
The good news is that translating content is not the tedious and expensive process it once was. Using services like MyGengo, you can get professional quality translations in a few hours at a very reasonable price. They even offer an API that makes it possible for you to embed the translation pipeline in your website.
2. Localize All Measurements
Globalizing your content doesn’t end with language translations. Any time you talk about pounds or inches, a visitor from Europe will scratch his or her head. If you list the prices in US Dollars only, you’re asking some potential customers to spend extra time figuring out how much your product actually costs them. Avoid using phrases that relate to a certain culture or region, and try not to use terms which may mean different things to different people (such as “football” in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom).
3. Map the Language Versions in Physical URLs
It’s a good idea to place all your language versions on the same web domain, as this brings your community together and helps pool the traffic. Rather than having 10 different websites with low traffic, you could have one strong website.
Having said this, a single URL should only represent content in one language. If you try to create a system where the same exact web address dynamically shows content in different languages, it will confuse search engines. The two easiest ways to separate the languages are with a language subdomain (en.domain.com), or a language folder that comes after the domain (www.domain.com/en/).
I have used both over the past few years and prefer language folders. Either way works fine, so choose the option that best suits you. Avoid using parameters like www.domain.com/?lang=en, as search engines don’t like them either.
4. Detect the User’s Language
When a user visits your site for the first time, take an educated guess which language he or she prefers. The HTTP request header is often the best place to start, providing useful information such as the language of the web browser. If everything else fails, you can still take a guess based on the user’s location.
Of course, a user’s location is not a fully reliable way of detecting his or her preferred language. Some countries have multiple official languages and the user could even be traveling. Even the browser language can be wrong in some cases (for example, if the user is browsing from an Internet cafe in a foreign country). Despite such problems, detecting your user’s language is the most effective way to ensure your users can understand your webpage on first impression.
5. Language Selection
While detecting the user’s language is great, always make it easy for a user to change the language. If he or she does, ensure you remember his or her settings in the future. Whatever you do, don’t restrict the choice of languages based on a user’s location.
MySpace provides an example of what not to do. If you choose Finland as your home country, it automatically changes the website language to Finnish. If you choose Switzerland, it asks you if you speak German, Italian or French. If you are an English speaker, you need to choose US, UK or Australia as your home country regardless of where you actually live. Its important to give the user the choice of language, regardless of his or her geographical location.
6. Use Machine Translation for Customer Support
One of the first things you’ll notice after translating your website into multiple languages is that you start receiving customer support requests in all those languages. It’s a positive problem to have because it means your plan for global domination is succeeding!
The good news is that you can leverage your existing customer support team by giving them translation tools, such as Google Translate. It doesn’t always do a perfect job, but it’s good enough to understand the problem the customer is having, and to suggest a way to resolve it.
Another option is to add the translation tool to your website’s trouble-shooting ticket system. This way English-speaking customer support representatives handling the ticket can use the tool to understand problems in other languages, and reply in English. If the customer doesn’t understand English, they can then use the built-in translation to get the text back to their own language. This is how the customer support has worked at the multilingual social network Xiha for the past two years, and the feedback from the customers has been overwhelmingly positive.
7. Use a Global CDN Provider
If you run a website with lots of traffic, you probably already know what a CDN is. If you don’t know, CDN stands for Content Delivery Network. It is a system which mirrors all static content from your website to servers (or nodes) around the world. When a visitor comes to the site, the CDN system automatically serves the content from the closest node.
This can have a big impact on the loading times of pages in your website even within the U.S., and the difference is like night and day when going global. I have seen websites load 5 to 10 times faster with a CDN. Using one is easy and quite affordable compared to alternative solutions, such as hosting the entire website on multiple locations around the world.
Remember that speeding up the loading times is not only going to make your visitors happier, but also boost your page rank on Google. Loading speed is one of the factors Google considers when determining how high your website will show up in search results.
WebPagetest.org is a great tool for measuring the load times from different points around the world. It’s a free service that lets you check how your website loads from various places, using different browsers, from New York to New Zealand to New Delhi. If you are not already using it, go and check how your website loads in Australia — you might be in for a shock!
Also be aware that some services are blocked in certain countries. If you have a Facebook or Twitter widget on your site, go and see what happens when your website is accessed from a country like China.
8. Support Right-to-Left Layout
Some languages, such as Arabic, feature a writing system that goes from right to left. Arabic is currently the fastest growing language on the Internet, but most websites outside of Arabic speaking countries don’t support it. You can give your business a competitive edge by being among the first.
Fully supporting these languages usually means flipping over the entire layout of your webpage. Otherwise you’ll get a situation where the text is aligned to the right side and buttons are still on the left. Take a look at Google’s Arabic landing page for a great example.
9. Accept Local Payment Systems
Even if you are not consciously attempting to take over the world, you might still get international visitors. If you allow these visitors to give you money, making it difficult or impossible for them to pay is a great way to go out of business.
Although almost everyone in the U.S. and Western Europe has a credit card, they are relatively uncommon in many countries. At the very least try to support PayPal and Skrill (formerly known as Moneybookers). Both of these payment systems allow users to transfer money from bank accounts.
10. Avoid Regional Controls
You should never control a user’s access to content based on his or her region. The only exception is if you’re dealing with licensed content, such as music or movies, that come with regional restrictions. Under normal circumstances though, there is rarely any benefit from such restrictions and they can really frustrate customers.
One example I came across was in Switzerland, when I was trying to put together a Weber barbeque set. I ran into problems and so went to the company website, which appeared in German. By using Google I was able to find out that they do have a manual available in English, but when I tried to open the English language website, I was automatically redirected back to the German website. I then checked the direct download URL to the PDF from Google’s cache, only to find out the access to the file was restricted! In the end I had to ask a friend from another country to download the file and send it to me.
There are a number of other examples I have come across when abroad where I have found websites that either refuse to work or limit access to the content we are normally able to browse. When considering adding any limitations, try to think what you are actually trying to achieve. If you’re worried that users from other countries will access your website and it’ll be expensive, think again. If you’re actually getting so much traffic from abroad that it is costing you money, don’t filter it out, monetize it!