It’s in the Details: Seven Secrets of a Successful International Website

It’s in the Details: Seven Secrets of a Successful International Website

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In: Articles

By Huiping Iler

Published on January 15, 2007

Your customers want to feel like you are speaking to them. They want to feel like you understand them. This can be a relatively straightforward task if your target market shares your language and culture. But what if it doesn’t?

In a world where web sites are the calling cards of most companies, localizing web content for your international audience is the key. Part of localization involves translating your website into the language of your target market.

A report by Forrester Research on multilingual websites reported that international visitors are three times more likely to explore a website and make a purchase if the website is in their native language.

But when it comes to creating a successful international website, language isn’t everything. Many other factors come into play, all of which require knowledge about your target market. If, for example, you know you will be translating your website into other languages, it’s a good idea to keep this in mind during the initial design phase. Why? That way you can design it in a way that accommodates these changes without affecting the website’s core design.

The process of designing a product (in this case a website) so that it can be adapted to other languages without engineering changes is called internationalization. Within the framework of internationalization, localization can take place. In website design, localization is the process of adapting a website through language, content and design to reflect local cultural sensitivities. (For more on this topic see

Here are seven factors that you can’t ignore when you’re working on localization of your web project:

  1. Shopping habits differ by culture.

    In North America, making a purchase online usually requires a credit card. Other countries are not as comfortable with this method of payment. A case in point: Early on, when targeting Germany, many U.S. retailers made the mistake of assuming that Germans shop like they do. They soon learned that Germans prefer to pay by cash or money order. (Interestingly, many restaurants, as well as smaller hotels in the German-speaking world, do not accept credit cards of any kind.)

    U.S. retailers have also learned that the Chinese have different shopping habits than North Americans. The Chinese are not used to shopping on a fixed price basis, but instead they negotiate a price on most things. According to a recent article in Internet Retailer, U.S. online retailers still haven’t figured out whether—or how—to accommodate a preference for haggling on their websites.

    Aside from researching the preferred payment methods of your target market, it’s also important to create a website that speaks in your audience’s currency. Leaving it up to the consumer to figure out exchange rates can be a hassle, and will ultimately lead to lost business.

    For small businesses, services such as PayPal can solve some of these problems with its international support for currencies such as the yen, euro, and the Canadian dollar.

    Another assumption that cannot be made when creating an online presence in another country is that terms used in North America will apply elsewhere. Take the example of the shopping cart. Online, the shopping cart is a metaphor for purchasing items. North American e-shoppers understand that the shopping cart is representative of a container holding items that the consumer is purchasing online. However, in Europe, a shopping cart could cause confusion because many Europeans often shop at the market with a basket, rather than a cart.

  2. Analogies can alienate.

    People want to feel like you understand them. Using terms that they can’t relate to makes them feel alienated. A good international website will not only speak the language of the target audience, but use analogies that the customer is familiar with.

    An example is the Walt Disney World Resort. When the resort created promotional material for a North American audience, it stated that the resort is 47 square miles or “roughly half the size of Rhode island.” Outside of North America, where many people don’t know about Rhode Island, this analogy would have no meaning. As a result, the material was tailored to suit each target market. For instance, in the U.K version the material states that the resort is “the size of greater Manchester,” and in Japan, it states that it’s the size of the subway system.

    Once again, a little research can go a long way in making your website visitors feel that you can relate to them.

  3. Colors have cultural significance.

    Although colors can play a huge role in the aesthetics of your website, they can serve a greater purpose. Colors act as signifiers, which may not be consistent from culture to culture. Therefore, it is imperative that you do your homework before you choose colors for your international website.

    In North America, for instance, red is often used in operating instructions to signify danger, while other cultures often use green or black for the same purpose. Black in Western culture is the color of mourning; not so in Asia, where white signifies death.

  4. Symbols are not all universal.

    Some symbols are indeed universal, but many are not. Some symbols can be considered offensive, including numerous hand gestures. The ‘okay’ sign (index finger and thumb together forming a circle) is considered obscene in Brazil, while the thumbs-up gesture in Iran is highly offensive.

    Flags should also be avoided on your website. Some websites use flags to denote locales, but this is not the best icon to use, as flags represent countries, not languages. For instance, should you use France’s flag or Canada’s flag to signify the French language?

  5. Weights and measures should be appropriate.

    When you are creating an international website, it is essential that you convert your weights and measurements to suit your target market. Pounds, feet, and inches will not work for countries that use the metric system. Also, be mindful of measurements for time and date, as well as telephone number formats—for example, (212) 878-9090 is correct in the U.S., but compare that to a similar number in Australia, which would be displayed (+ 21) 2- 8789-0900.

  6. Text swell can ruin your website design.

    Text swell is the amount of space (or lack of space) a word takes up when it is translated into another language. If you are creating sites in European languages, you should leave enough white space in your layout to accommodate for a twenty-five to thirty percent expansion. If, on the other hand, you are targeting Asian markets, keep in mind that the text will generally take up less space than English.

  7. Be sensitive.

    North American culture is very informal compared to many other cultures. It’s typical, for instance, for a U.S. website to greet registered users with, “Welcome back, (insert first name)!” This level of informality would be inappropriate in Japan, for example, where people are addressed by their last name. In that case, a more suitable greeting would be, “We are honored by your return visit, Mr. (insert last name).”

    Being sensitive to a culture’s value system is essential. Some cultures are offended by the amount of skin that is shown on U.S. websites. Others are offended when local models are not used.

There are many ways your international audience could be affronted by your web site. Assuming that your users are like you is a surefire way to do just that. A little research about the culture you are targeting can go a long way in helping you build trust, respect, and ultimately, new customers.


Information on web sites in bi-directional languages such as Arabic and Hebrew
Designing for a non-English audience
Beyond Borders (book)

Related Topics: Web Design, Globalization and Internationalization, Planning

Huiping Iler is the president of, an Ottawa, Canada based language service that specializes in web site translation. Check out her white paper titled Maximizing Visibility for Multilingual Web Sites on her web site