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February 2008

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Web Globalization - Just for Large Companies?

Posted 2/1/2008 12:00:00 AM by Mark Reichard

I'm attending the IQPC Web Site Globalization conference later this month in San Diego, so I've been reading up on the current state of the Web globalization business.

After years of corporate skepticism about creating multiple language sites, the tide seems to be turning --- large companies generally now recognize that having a Web site available in the languages of their target market has a positive ROI. Large technology companies like Dell, HP, IBM, Symantec, HP and Microsoft have extremely multilingual sites--- Dell's site has more than 80 languages. When you take into account not only the expense of translation but also the multiplier effect of any change that requires per-language intervention, you can begin to appreciate the truly massive commitment that a site in more than 80 languages represents.

Despite this trend, if you are an IT decision maker at a US company not among the Fortune 500, you are probably still wondering whether the expense of translating into even a handful of additional languages makes sense. The answer of course, depends on the nature of your market, or more accurately your market potential.

The first question to ask yourself is if you make or sell a product or service that either can be exported or might be purchased by a non-native English speaker --- like one of the 43.5 million native Spanish speakers in the US. If so, then a multilingual site might make sense for you, but that is only the first half of the equation in evaluating your market potential among non-English speakers. The next question is: how prepared are you to support purchasers abroad or non-English-speaking customers in the US? Having the capacity to support these customers is important in at least two ways.

First, you must realize that getting a multilingual Web site does just mean that you send out your HTML files for translation, put whatever you get from the translator up on the Web and wait for orders. Folks who have seen collections of signs posted abroad in tortured English (e.g. the drycleaner's sign "drop your pants here for best results") will understand why not. These seem funny, but the reality is that without the ability to have native speakers review content, you could have no idea if the translated Web pages you receive back from your translation provider are any better. For this reason, some independent third party review of translations is essential. This requires the help of in-country staff, partners, distributors or customers.

Second, if you are going to ask for business from non-English speakers, you must have the capacity to conduct business on their language -- to answer Web contact form submissions, to deal with warrantee or support issues and sometimes even just to complete the sale.

Does this mean that, if you cannot support full localization of your site with expert in-country review of each word, and native-speaker customer service staff you should not do any localization? The conventional wisdom would say "no." Most language professionals would say that trying to develop a site in a language that you cannot really support will just raise expectations. This may be true, if you go about the process without explicitly setting user expectations. However, if you do work to set user expectations appropriately --- i.e. make clear in a positive way that you are providing some localized content as a convenience, but your abilities in this area are limited --- then not only will users probably appreciate it (some localized content is better than none), but you may also reap big search engine optimization benefits.

As explained by an excellent article in the January issue of Global By Design, non-native English speakers often search first in their native language --- even for industry jargon that has a common, international English term. This is presumably on the off chance that a countryman has published something in their language on the topic. The point is that these are often high-value keywords with no competing sites, so you can dramatically increase traffic with even limited strategic localization.

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