Thinking Locally to Communicate Globally: Delivering Content to the World

Executives at an American cosmetics company decided to launch a Japanese version of the company's Web site. They worked hard to make sure the language and layout were just right. They even had a cool tool that let users apply makeup to a digital face so visitors could preview the company's products. It was an interactive application that was, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, "an example of a good use of Flash, as opposed to some of the annoying uses you'll see." So the site was sure to be a success, right?

Well, the company forgot one thing. The face on which the makeup could be applied was a white woman's face, not an Asian face. Testing the site in Japan, Nielsen says he found "all these Japanese girls in our study were sitting there saying, ‘This doesn't really look like me. It's hard to judge what color schemes or tones to use looking at this face because it's so different from mine.'"

Localizing a Web site—converting it for users in another country or culture—and globalizing a site—optimizing it for users from many countries or cultures—can be complex projects, and it's easy to overlook one or two seemingly small things. But as the cosmetics company's experience shows, those one or two things might mean the difference between success and failure. To avoid overlooking critical elements, a gradual approach may be the best strategy.

You need to "set realistic goals," says John Yunker, founder of Byte Level Research and author of the book Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies. "A lot of companies start off a little too ambitious," he says. "Some try to duplicate all the functionality of their site in a half dozen languages at the same time. I advise starting slowly and building on your success."

Image Conscious
Nielsen says he and the researchers at his firm, the Nielsen Norman Group, have seen many companies make mistakes with online images. "We see people take the raw text on their site and translate that," he says, "but they don't translate the design or the design elements. And there can be problems with a lot of different types of imagery. Things can look very American in photographs when they should look Italian, for example."
Nielsen has been making this point for several years, and he provides an example of a similar problem in his 1996 article "International Usability Testing," which is posted on his Web site (

The article includes a screen from a game on the JumpStart Toddlers CD-ROM. The game asks the user to give a dog a ball from a group of objects that includes a football, a newspaper, a sandal, and a dog biscuit. Nielsen points out "most European kids would probably point to the biscuit rather than the football since the sports they play do not involve balls that are not round."

"Visuals in general can be problematic," says Yunker. "Just the way people pose—if someone is sitting in a chair, and if you can see the bottom of his shoe, in the Middle East this can be a problem. Poses, hand expressions, certain colors—it's the subtleties. There are so many different ways you can offend different markets."

Even the icons on a site could be offensive. In her book, Web Word Wizardry, international econtent consultant Rachel McAlpine points out that you shouldn't use flags to indicate languages "because this will alienate many visitors. Which flag indicates English: the flag from the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Singapore? Which flag will you use for countries like Switzerland, which has four official languages?"
McAlpine points to the Statistics Belgium ( site as one that does it right. To read in Dutch, users click the word Nederlands (the Dutch word for Dutch). To read in French, they click Français; in German, Deutsch.

Working with Words
nglish often has been considered the unofficial language of the Web, but more than half of all Internet users are not native English speakers, according to the research firm GlobalReach.

Still, Yunker says, "even some of the largest American companies have only just begun to address Web globalization." He points out that Nike, which sells products in 140 countries, has localized sites in only thirteen languages, and Nike is ahead of most other American companies. Wal-Mart provides sites for only two countries, but it has stores in nine.
Companies that are just getting started translating online content into another language usually should start with Spanish, Yunker says. "Spanish makes the most sense because we have thirty million Spanish speakers in the U.S. The Asian languages, Cyrillic languages, and Arabic are very challenging. I suggest starting with Spanish and building from there."

Nielsen also advocates localizing a site slowly and establishing priorities for which languages you should do first. He suggests looking at the traffic logs for your existing site to determine where most of your international visitors are coming from.
Yunker believes you should go slowly "because some of the greatest challenges to a localized Web site have nothing to do with the site itself. They have to do with all the adjustments your company is going to have to make once that site goes live. You're going to get email in different languages and there will be new customer support issues. You might have to worry about delivering products to different countries and handling different types of payment fulfillments.

"There are myriad issues that need to be addressed whether you do one language or thirty, so if you start with just one, I think you're going to see a lot of those issues come up, and you can nip them in the bud and learn from that. Then start adding other languages."

Working with Translators
Hiring freelance translators may be the least expensive approach to localizing a site, but it also can be time-consuming in terms of managing their work. Another approach is to work with an agency that provides complete translation and localization services. The largest company in this industry is Bowne Global Solutions, which recently acquired Berlitz GlobalNet and provides translation in 64 languages. Clients have included Microsoft, Palm, and Novell.

Other localization companies include Excel Translations, EuroSource Trans- lations, and RWS Group. To find more agencies and learn about their industry, check out the Web sites for the American Translators Association and the Localization Industry Standards Association.
It's important to work with an agency that has experience in handling Web localization because there are many problems unique to the medium. For example, problems can arise when text is embedded in images. If the text is translated, it often expands and no longer fits on the image. If the image is a link—part of a navigation bar, for example—you then might have to redesign the entire navigation system for the page.
When you're considering hiring an agency, Yunker says you should "ask them how they measure and control quality of the translation. No agency is perfect, but generally the good agencies will have systems in place where they can catch errors and prevent them from reoccurring. And it's a good idea to align yourself with an agency that specializes in your industry because they will have translators on hand who understand your terminology.

"It also is important to play an active role in understanding who an agency's translators are. Are they on the staff? Are they freelancers? Always ask for a free test, and ask them how they can help you save money on the project. A lot of translation is very expensive."

The cost ranges from about 22 cents to 38 cents per word. So one obvious way to save is to make sure the information you want translated is written concisely. Yunker points out that at least one localization company, ArchiText, offers a service called ABREVE, which focuses on reducing the volume of source text in order to lower cost, raise usability, and streamline the translation project.

(Yunker's Byte Level Research sells a 48-page PDF document through its Web site called, "The Savvy Client's Guide to Translation Agencies." It offers information on more than 35 agencies, as well as tips on how to hire one.)

Using Global English
Besides translating text for a localized site, you also can optimize the English on your primary Web pages to make them easier to understand for the more than one billion people who use English as their second, third, or fourth language.

"For an international audience, you have to write in a simpler, briefer manner," says Nielsen. "This does not necessarily mean that you have to dumb down your information, but you have to make it easier to scan. For example, we often find that Japanese users appreciate tables. I think that's partly a cultural thing—they just like tables—but it also is a language thing because with a table they have to read the heading only once, and then they understand an entire column. So tables are often great ways of minimizing the burden on people who have to read text."
McAlpine advocates an approach called Global English, which involves avoiding jargon understood only by your colleagues, idioms understood only by your compatriots, long paragraphs that make skim-reading impossible, and headlines that say nothing of substance. Web writers also should watch out for long or complex sentences and sentences and paragraphs that do not start with the topic. (McAlpine's Web Word Wizardry includes a chapter called "Write for the World," and she offers a free article on Global English through her Web site: Quality Web Content.)
Translation projects can be expensive, but McAlpine points out that using Global English doesn't have to be. In most cases, it can be accomplished simply by paying more attention to the Global English guidelines.

"Much depends on who writes and edits the information," McAlpine says. "Journalists and corporate wordsmiths know how to write useful headings and how to put the main point first. But they may not understand the need to structure content into small chunks and provide many explanatory subheadings. Writers of professional documents (e.g., government policy, reports of all types) are skilled in their information area, but not necessarily in writing. They need to be humble about the need for severe, specific editing if their documents are to go online. Changing a Word document to a Web document requires skill. In other words, most online providers need training. And even a little training can do wonders."

McAlpine also suggests including users who are not native English speakers in usability tests, and she points out that you should test not only content but also functionality and navigation.

So, although globalization and localization projects can be expensive, complex undertakings, the good news is that global success is possible even for companies with limited resources, if they just pay more attention to the words and images they use on a site in order to facilitate a more global understanding of econtent.

SIDEBAR: Localizing the Search Engine: A Brief Case Study
the company launched a global search initiative, users outside the U.S. were "presented with inconsistent search application design and functionality," says Jennifer Moyer, program manager for HP's company-wide search applications.
A primary design requirement for the initiative was that all users, regardless of country or language, should be able to access standard functionality and a common interface in accordance with HP design and usability standards.

The company chose Inktomi as its search solution provider. "With Inktomi," Moyer says, "HP was able to modify the search interface to create country-specific search applications, some supporting more than one language—French and English in Canada, for example."
Ed Hoffman, Inktomi director of sales, says "HP has been one of our most innovative clients in terms of how they have internationalized and localized the Inktomi search interface to support the global community. Their extensive knowledge of localization requirement was an educational experience."

If you are shopping for localized search solution, Inktomi representative Christina Peters suggests you look for one that can be customized and offers full Unicode support. She also suggests you make sure the technology provides stemming in all the languages you want to support, language ID for all the languages, and integration with portal and content management applications that are producing and displaying the content.