There’s now over a billion people online around the world, and 78% of that one billion do not speak English as a first language (Internetworldstats.com), so if you’re launching a website that’s just going to be in English, it’s worth taking into account that you’re only going to be reaching out to 22% of your potential audience.
This is especially relevant if your website is in the business of selling, because research has shown that 85% of consumers won’t buy a product from a website if they can’t access information in their own language (Common Sense Advisory, 2006). So if you’re planning to branch out with localised multilingual sites, it’s worth taking a few factors into account before you get started.
Every cultural group has its own particular cultural quirks, its own particular consumer behaviour and its own aesthetic sensibility, and this has been proven to relay into website design and e-commerce. Psychology professors Denise Park of the University of Illinois and Michael W. Chee of the SingHealth Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in Singapore conducted research in 2007 on the ways in which Asian and American subjects processed information. Using cognitive tests and Magnetic Resonance Imaging they proved that the Asian subjects tended to pay more attention to the context, or background, of images, while the American subjects paid more attention the central or dominant feature of the image.
How does this apply to website design, you may ask? Well, it means if you’re designing a website for an American audience, you’ll want to get straight to the point, but if you’re designing a site for the Chinese market, you might want to focus more on your imagery, background and the overall message your site is sending out.
When you’re looking at building a basic site which can then be translated into a series of localised domains for different markets, it’s a good idea to consider all of your different markets and what they’ll each require before starting out. Here are a few tips that might save you a lot of time and hassle down the road.
Top Level Domains
First things first, get yourself an in-country Top Level Domain (TLD) for each target market – not only will it make you look more reputable to the customers, but it will also help with boosting your rankings with the in-country search engines.
You need a design that is going to have strong branding and be instantly recognisable to link all of your localised sites together, but also flexible enough to cope with the different aesthetic demands of each different cultural group.
For instance, you might use more imagery and colour in your sites for Asian markets, while your European sites might be more minimalist, with navigation via drop down menus rather than via on-screen gifs.
Keeping your navigation bars horizontal should save you some headaches when it comes to switching between right-to-left and left-to-right languages, and remember that different character sets will mean changing your line widths and heights.
Colour is a crucial point – it can signify a lot, and can mean very different things in different countries. For instance, in the west, green is generally the colour of nature and the environment, but it’s also a special colour in Islam.
Don’t mess up like telecom company Orange did when launching in Northern Ireland and choose a colour inextricably linked with religion and conflict. If you’re after a safe and happy medium, green or blue backgrounds with black or white text have been shown to be the most universally approved.
Keep it simple – Times New Roman, Arial or Verdana are generally considered the least offensive to the eye.
Remember that your imagery will need to change between localised sites – your Indian customers don’t care to see a bunch of photos of Russian people enjoying your product, and vice versa; customers need to be able to relate directly to the product.
As always, when designing across cultures, sensitivity is key – if you’re making a site for a conservative culture, steer away from all indecent imagery. Many cultures will find certain imagery more offensive that others.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) will save you plenty of hassle by allowing table-less design and by keeping your content separate from your design – absolutely essential if you’re planning to change the language of your content between each local site.
You don’t want to have to go redesigning every page from scratch. CSS also allows for smaller file sizes, which is handy for fast page-loading.
If you’re switching your text between half a dozen languages, you’re going to need a flexible character encoding tool. Luckily Unicode UTF-8 provides exactly that, with a unique code for every character in over 90 languages, so whether you’re called upon to switch text into simplified Chinese characters or to add in a few German ‘Eszett’ symbols (ß), you’ll be covered.
Try and avoid Flash (and Java) wherever possible – not only will Flash files slow down your page load times (which is no good for countries without high speed internet, not to mention that it’s now believed that Google has made page-load times a factor in its rankings algorithm), but text embedded in Flash files is also invisible to search engine bots, meaning it’s useless for your SEO strategy.
Perhaps most important of all – make sure that your content is correct. Web users are a savvy lot, especially when it comes to buying online, and if your copy contains spelling mistakes, or uses odd phrasing, or just feels ‘off’, then it’s unlikely you’re going to convince the customer that you’re a reliable retailer.
As tempting as it might be to save money by sticking a Google Translate widget on each page, automatic translation devices have no feel for the subtleties or the rhythm of a language – to do it properly you need to get a professional translator working into their language to translate your copy and make sure that it’s culturally appropriate for the target market.
This is especially true for your SEO keywords – the direct English translation is not always the most popular search term – a quick spot of research on a keyword search tool such as Google Adwords will help you to figure out which keywords to use prominently in your copy.
About the Author:
Christian Arno is the founder and managing director of global translation provider Lingo24, which also specialises in website localisation.