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In: Columns > The $ & Sense of IT

By Alan K'necht

Published on October 14, 2003

Thanks in part to Tim Berners-Lee and the invention of the World Wide Web, the world is a much smaller place today than it otherwise would have been. Yet very few businesses throughout the world have taken advantage of this. They continue to see things as they were and don’t look beyond what they know. Instead of leveraging the technology to expand their business prospects throughout the world, they merely focus on servicing the markets they already have and know.

The reason for this is simple—it’s far easier and safer to build Web sites with what we know and for whom we know. Is this, however, what the business needs to improve its bottom-line or merely what it’s comfortable with? I’m talking about building sites that go beyond the culture or language that the business is familiar with. I’m talking about building internationally-friendly, multilingual and multi-cultural Web sites.

We are all aware that the moment we publish something on the World Wide Web, it is immediately accessible to anyone anywhere in the world who has an Internet connection. Yet we continue to build sites that service our local markets, when for a few dollars more, we could be servicing the entire world. I’m sad to say that, on average, U.S.-based firms are the major offenders. Many cannot even see beyond the border to the north and south, and build commerce and information sites that simply ignore these potential nearby markets. Why would a company based in Detroit, Michigan offer a promotion (e.g., “fill out our customer survey and receive valuable coupons for our store”) that says “offer good only to U.S. residents?” By this simple statement the company has excluded potential customers in Windsor, Ontario, who may live fifteen minutes away, but included customers living in Miami, Florida. Which of these two potential customers is more likely to take advantage of the local promotion? What would it have cost this company to investigate and adjust the promotion to include their next door neighbor? Perhaps a few hundred dollars in legal fees.

As a Canadian, I’m sad to report that many Canadian companies behave in the same way, and instead of spending a little money, to investigate what it takes to run their promotions across borders, they stay with what they know is safe. If these companies actually realized how little it could cost to modify a Web site to support global commerce, then perhaps there would be a lot more internationally-friendly sites in the world.

If you’re feeling inspired and are ready to upgrade your sites for the global economy, take a deep breath and pause for a moment. Before you tackle modifying your existing site, or building a site from scratch that supports global commerce, you need to address some issues. First, there is the basic site that is simply internationally-friendly, then there are multilingual sites and sites that target other cultures. Let’s examine the subtle differences between these types of sites.

Globally-Friendly Web Site

The globally-friendly site is simply that—it doesn’t put up any obstacles to its visitors.

A simple dollar sign ($) doesn’t mean anything unless you know the country in which the company is based. For all those sites that use generic top level domains like .com, .net, .biz, etc., your visitor doesn’t know where you’re located unless you tell them. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, many Caribbean countries, and the United States use this symbol. The solutions are simple:

  1. On each page where you show a copyright symbol, declare what country you’re in—© 2003 XYZ Inc., Detroit, MI USA; or

  2. On any page that shows pricing state “All pricing in U.S. Dollars”; or

  3. Next to each price, display the nature of the currency—$10 USD or $10 CDN

Many times I thought I found a great Web-based bargain, but it wasn’t until I either emailed the company or dug deeper to find out that the site was quoting U.S. dollars and not Canadian dollars. Then the bargain disappeared.

Other subtleties that make a site more globally-friendly and cost very little are date formats. Avoid using numerical date formats like 09-10-2003. Does this mean DD-MM-YYYY or is it MM-DD-YYYY? If you’re an American you generally think of it as MM-DD-YYYY. However, if you’re from Great Britain you’d read it as DD-MM-YYYY. Not a good thing if you’re running a special offer with an expiry date. Either use the ISO format of YYYY-MM-DD or spell it out in full—October 9, 2003.

You also need to review your legal terms and privacy policies. Make sure that they don’t exclude potential customers. It is actually very easy to run global contests by simply stating “void where prohibited by law” (always check with your lawyer before running contests) and thereby putting the onus on the users. Also, when a winner is selected, you can simply see if the contest was legal in their country of residence. If not, draw another name.

When selling and shipping products, provide shipping costs to different parts of the world. You can always provide the shipping weight with a link to your shipping company (FedEx, UPS etc.) so the customer can figure it out ahead of time. Better yet, where possible, integrate your shipping company’s cost model into your site. Make it as easy as possible for customers to know up front what it’s going to cost them.

The Multilingual Web Site

If you really want to go after additional markets, one of the most effective ways is to provide your content in multiple languages. In the simplest terms, you just need to pay for the cost of translation and you’ve expanded your market reach to millions of people. A word of caution: translating your site only allows you to expand your market reach within your geographical border. This is a great way, for example, that American-based English sites can start serving the large Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. If you want to expand geographically, go for an internationally-friendly multilingual site.

When translating a site, keep in mind the many different flavors of languages. If you want to target customers in Spain, don’t use American Spanish. The same applies to French (Canadian vs. France vs. African), German (German vs. Swiss vs. Austrian), and virtually every other language. Always use translators from the targeted region.

The Multicultural & Regionally-Targeted Web Site

Web sites under this genre provide content not only in multiple languages, but may target their content or their design to specific regions or cultural groups. A superior example of this is BBC World Service. The BBC offers its news service in forty-three different languages. When a user clicks on a specific language, they are taken to slightly different content, which is regionally-targeted to the country and/or region from which the language originates. They’ve gone beyond simply translating their content to providing regional news and information to the specific regions in addition to the staple of international news.

Now that you have seen three different types of sites, there are a few speed bumps that you need to address.

  1. Support—Can you support this additional market? It’s one thing to have your site translated to expand its market reach, but what do you do when customers start emailing you in that language? Do you have the resources on staff to answer the inquiries or do you have to outsource it? Make sure you have a plan in place before launching.

  2. Legal Responsibility—Before you ship certain products to foreign countries make sure you have a policy in place if something happens to it while passing through customs. While your product may be legal within your country, it may be illegal in the country it’s being sent to. So what happens if the local customs department confiscates the said item? Is the customer still responsible for paying for it?

  3. Offensive or Culturally-Biased Images—When modifying your site to target different cultural groups, you need to examine your images. What may be perfectly acceptable where you live may be offensive in another part of the world.

    A great example of this is the symbol for “OK”, where you make an “O” with your thumb and forefinger and raise the other fingers. While this symbol is acceptable in the U.S. and Canada, it is very offensive in many parts of the world, especially in South America where it takes on a variety of meanings.

    Even simple graphics may show a cultural bias. For example, when targeting your site to a local Asian community, look at all the pictures on your site that show people. Do they look like your target audience?

    If you’re planning on translating your site into Arabic, Hebrew, or any other language that is read from right to left, you need to examine your graphics. Which way are the people looking? Do they look against the flow of the language? What side of the screen do they appear on? —and so forth.

While these three speed bumps may be major issues that have to be addressed, they are not the only ones. The best advice before moving into any new market is to seek the guidance of someone who is familiar with the specific market. This rule holds true not just for business on the Web, but for any business.

If you’re prepared to think beyond, to a global marketplace for your site, you can reap many rewards. However, if you don’t do your homework, you are most likely going to fail in your efforts.

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Related Topics: Globalization and Internationalization, ROI

 

Alan K'necht operates K'nechtology Inc., a search engine optimization and marketing and web development company. He is also a freelance writer, project manager, and accomplished speaker at conferences throughout the world. When he’s not busy working, he can be found chasing his small children or trying to catch some wind while windsurfing or ice/snow sailing.

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