The 8 Essential Website Translation and Localization Best Practices

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A number of the companies profiled in this report have supported localized websites for more than a decade. Over these years, a number of website translation best practices have emerged — best practices that every company can benefit from adopting (or at least better understanding).

The leading global websites support 30 languages or more

The Internet connects computers, but language connects people. And if your website doesn’t support your customer’s language, it may as well not exist for that customer.

While web users can leverage services such as Google Translate and Microsoft Translator to self-translate your website, these services only go so far. When it comes to purchasing travel services, professionally translated websites are essential to success.

The language leader in this report is Booking.com, with support for 41 languages. In the annual Web Globalization Report Card, in which we survey more than 150 global websites each year, the average number of languages supported is now 29.

Here are the language leaders in this report (NOTE: US English is not counted):

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Booking.com and Hotels.com are clearly ahead of the average website — but most other websites in this report have a long way to go. The average number of languages supported by the websites in this report is a mere 10.

Shown below is a chart of the major languages spoken by the world’s 2.7 billion Internet users. Currently, only 20% of all Internet users are native-English speakers. Even if you support the languages in this chart, you still only reach 80% of all Internet users — a percentage that is decreasing each year.

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So where should you begin? Your company’s language strategy should reflect your market opportunities and long-term goals. But you should also carefully study your competitors and the languages they have invested in.

If your company were to support just 10 languages, here are the most popular languages supported by global websites today:

  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Spanish (Spain and Latin America)
  • Chinese (Simplified)
  • Italian
  • Russian
  • Korean
  • Portuguese (Brazil)
  • Dutch

Support country codes

Nothing says “local” quite like a country code. Some companies, such as Travelocity, have incorporated country codes into their logos, subtly extending their brands into new markets.

If your company can support country codes, do so. Even if you can’t acquire all country codes for all markets, make the most of the country codes you can acquire.

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Of the 50 websites reviewed, 18 websites do an “average” to “above average” job of supporting country codes. Travel websites that do a particularly good job of supporting country codes include:

  • Air New Zealand
  • Enterprise
  • Expedia
  • Fairmont Hotels
  • Hilton
  • Kayak
  • Travelocity
  • TripAdvisor

Improve the discoverability of your local websites

Even if you can’t secure country codes for all of your target markets, there are a number of technical and visual elements you can employ to help ensure that visitors to your .com website quickly discover their local websites.

For starters, every website should support a visual global gateway that is prominently displayed on every web page. Ideally, the global gateway is indicated with a globe icon, as shown below on the Sheraton website:

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Note that the globe icon can be used to indicate either “select country/region” or “select language.”

The global gateway should be located in the header so web users can easily find it — and this rule applies equally to mobile websites.

Once you have a visual global gateway in place, consider testing backend technologies such as geolocation (identifying users by the location of their computers or phones) and language negotiation (identifying the language preferences of the web user’s computer or phone). These technologies, well implemented, can take web users directly to their local websites. But keep in mind that these technologies are not perfect and users should always be able to change their locale settings if needed — hence the visual global gateway.

Of the 50 websites reviewed, 20 use geolocation to help direct users to local content based on their location.

A dozen websites use language negotiation to align the language setting of the user’s web browser with the website language.

And a handful of companies, such as TripAdvisor, American Airlines, and Hotels.com, use both geolocation and language negotiation.

You can find much more information on global gateway best practices in the book The Art of the Global Gateway.

Support a “universal” global getaway

An over-translated gateway is one in which the menu of countries or languages is translated to match the language of the local website. Shown below is the InterContinental Hotels global gateway, listing all the available country websites.

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Unfortunately, the entire menu is in Chinese; a user who lands on the China website by mistake will have trouble navigating to his or her own country site. Beyond usability, over-translated gateways add to translation costs and management costs.

Instead of supporting a unique global gateway for each country website, companies should support one “universal” gateway that works across all country sites.

For example, below is the global gateway used by Kayak across three country websites. Note how the gateway itself remains the same.

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In a universal gateway, each country or language name is presented in the language of the local site — and it stays constant across all websites. Fixing an over-translated gateway is one of the easiest ways to improve usability.

If you can avoid using flags, do so

Flags can be particularly challenging from a cultural and geopolitical perspective. For instance, many Chinese web users dislike seeing websites displaying the flag for Taiwan, as they view Taiwan as a region of China and not a separate country. For this reason, some websites avoid using flags altogether — and also ask users to “select country/region” instead of “select country” to avoid offending anyone.

But as you’ll see in this report, a significant number of travel websites make use of flags. My recommendation is simple: If you can avoid using flags, do so.

That said, a business case can be made to use flags to enhance the user experience when it comes to ecommerce. That is, users see their flag and feel a degree of comfort in knowing they are on their home page. And given the complexity of global websites, companies are eager to make customers feel as comfortable as possible.

However, we must stress that some of the most successful global websites — such as Google and Facebook — avoid using flags altogether. From a visual perspective, flags do not scale well — since so many flags share the same colors, the result can range from “busy” to “confusing.” Consider just how distracting Microsoft’s global gateway below (from its China website) would look if it supported flags:

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If you must use flags, at least do not make the mistake of using flags to indicate languages.

Support local-language social platforms, but set realistic expectations

As you expand beyond borders, you may also have to expand beyond Facebook and Twitter.

Because Facebook and Twitter are leading social networks in so many countries, it’s easy to assume they are leading everywhere. But there are some markets in which there are indigenous alternatives that are leading. China is the most notable exception, due in large part because it blocks Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t limit your global strategy to just Facebook and Twitter. Closely study the networks your audience within a country is using, such as:

  • China: YouKu,  Weibo
  • Netherlands: Hyves
  • Russia: vKontakte

Shown here is the Weibo home page for Booking.com:

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Also be sure to consider other social networks such as Google+, LinkedIn, and Tumblr.

Most important, don’t set unrealistically high expectations for the number of followers of each local social media feed. For example, Starbucks has more than 36 million likes of its global home page on Facebook, but its Germany page has just 600,000 likes, and Russia has just 31,000 likes. Yet these local pages are home to a highly engaged group of users interacting in their local language, as shown below with the German site.

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And don’t forget: If your company offers local-market social networks, be sure you also promote these feeds on the local websites.

Use global design templates

Your company’s website may only support four locales today, but three years from now you may have 25 sites to manage. In order to efficiently manage all of these sites, you need a global template. Global templates are particularly valuable to companies that support multiple brands.

The global design template is now a widely accepted best practice in website translation. As companies continue to add languages and local websites in the years ahead, the need for global consistency will only intensify. Unless you have a specific business reason for not migrating to global design templates, now is the time to act. Global consistency allows for fewer people to manage more country sites and also allows for all content managers to use common tools and processes.

The global template is easier to manage globally and provides consistency to aid in more quickly rolling out global promotions. For the end user, global templates provide a consistent, trusted interface that will aid in usability and credibility.

Treat the world equally (or at least honestly)

Companies that tend to do the best job at website translation are those that strive to treat customers in all markets equally. Instead of viewing themselves as domestic companies with foreign customers, they view themselves as global companies with local customers. This way of thinking permeates the design, functionality, and content of the websites, ensuring that a web user in France has the same experience as a web user in Florida. If you can’t provide an equal experience, be honest about it.

For example, Hyatt makes clear that its websites localized for Russian and Portuguese are “abridged” sites and not fully functional sites. This is a subtle but credible tactic for managing user expectations.

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Honesty is not a bad thing when it comes to web localization. Users know when they’re not getting a fully localized site — so be honest with them and properly manage their expectations.

After now understanding a number of the companies profiled in this report and how they have supported localized websites for more than a decade. These website translation best practices will hopefully enable you specific benefits you can begin to adopt (or at least better understand) going forward.

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