You may have noticed that there are several multi-syllabic terms associated with the process of creating multilingual websites. Some of the most common are internationalization, globalization, and localization.
These seemingly interchangeable words are often confused, misused, and misunderstood. And to add to the confusion, many industry experts describe them somewhat differently.
“Internationalization” may be the most misunderstood of them all—which is unfortunate, because it’s critical to successful website translation, localization, and globalization. Why? We’ll explain by defining the term and illustrating why it’s key to boosting traffic and improving the global customer experience (CX).
Just what is website internationalization?
Internationalization is the process of ensuring that your site’s architecture, platforms, and workflows accommodate multiple languages and cultural conventions to make the creation of localized sites possible. By internationalizing your source website and content management system (CMS) you’re making them technically and functionally “global-ready” (which is often used as a synonym for internationalization).
For an academic perspective, Dr. Nitish Singh, associate professor of International Business at St. Louis University’s Boeing Institute of International Business, describes it this way:
“The process through which back-end technologies are used to create a modular, culturally neutral, extendable, and accessible global website. Internationalization helps companies develop a global platform or web architecture for future globalization efforts.” (Singh, Park, Kalliny, 2012, pg. 60) 1
Internationalization: A key enabler of culturally relevant customer experiences
So website internationalization is about your back-end technologies (think content management and related systems) supporting multilingual web publishing processes. And it enables your front-end presentation layer (user interface, or UI, etc.) to present quality, local-language content for culturally relevant customer experiences.
But remember, it’s important to complete internationalization before localizing. Otherwise, you may need to re-engineer your sites as they’re being localized—which will be difficult, costly, and delay time-to-market. [Note: Internationalization is a prerequisite for localization.]
Of numeronyms and alphanumeric acronyms
Due to its length, the term internationalization is often abbreviated in the language services industry as i18n, with the number representing the amount of characters between the word’s first and last letters. But it’s not really an abbreviation at all. It’s officially called a “numeronym” or alphanumeric acronym. (Others include L10n for localization and G11n for globalization.)
What internationalization is not
To help you understand how internationalization supports, but differs, from associated processes—here are some definitions for use in the context of this post. Again, these may vary slightly depending on which industry expert you ask, but they generally retain their core meaning:
- According to the Globalization and Localization Association, translation is “the process of converting all of the text or words from the source language to the target language. An understanding of the context or meaning of the source language must be established in order to convey the same message in the target language.” [Note: Translation is a subset of localization.]
- Localization goes beyond translation to adapt the original (source) language and other site elements to appeal to the customer’s cultural preferences in their own (target) language. It’s the process of modifying your web content and applications for regional or local consumption. Here’s another insightful definition from industry expert Dr. Nitish Singh:
“Localization, or ‘adaptation strategy,’ takes into account the inherent diversity that exists in international markets, and treats individuals as ‘cultural beings’ whose values and behaviors are shaped by the unique culture in which they live.” (Singh, 2012, pg. 86)2 [Note: Localization is a subset of globalization.]
- Globalization, as you might expect, has several meanings. But in this context, it means that if your company wants to conduct global business in a manner consistent with its brand, its web presence must first be properly internationalized, localized, and optimized for multilingual SEO (thus, fully globalized). Only then can you transform processes to support customers in their preferred languages and locales—and drive e-business success.
To further illustrate the importance of this overarching process, Dr. Singh summarizes the benefits this way: “Website globalization addresses all enterprise-wide issues that are involved in successfully launching and maintaining international websites and achieving international e-business expansion.” (Singh, 2012, pg. 83) 3
A hierarchy to remember
You may find the relationships of these terms easier to remember through this simple equation—which also includes the significance of multilingual SEO for successful web globalization:
Separate site constants from variables to simplify future projects
Another way to look at internationalization (according to industry guru John Yunker) is that the process enables the separation of site constants from site variables (Yunker, 2003, pgs. 174-176)4—with constants remaining as they are and variables changing per locale. This could also be thought of as the separation of static and dynamic content.
Examples of site constants include source code, global page templates, navigation and generic UI elements, brand names, and logos. Variables are often localizable text strings, regional product and service portfolios, graphics with text, international currencies, dynamically generated content from databases or other sources (i.e. product information databases), as well as conventions for dates and time, addresses, and phone numbers, etc.
These Nivea sites shown above (Sweden, Japan, and Brazil, from left to right) show both constants and variables. The constants—the global page template, the logo in the top left corner, and the generic search bar in the top right corner. The variables—the localized text strings and the models in the imagery.
Throughout this process, you’ll want to accurately identify and document which site elements will change and which will not—to minimize rework. Usually, the more variables your site includes, the more difficult it is to internationalize. But once completed, the process makes future projects easier since site variables have been identified and can be more readily found and efficiently localized.
Consider the humble address field: A sample site variable
The address field (or form) is an example of a simple back-end variable that, if not localized correctly, can affect customer experience. Since conventions vary from country to country, each of your localized sites must support a range of unique requirements for this relatively minor, yet important, functionality.
Many countries don’t have distinct states, for example, or they may have provinces instead. And postal formats vary with a mix of lettered and numbered codes that may appear before the city (Germany) or after it (England).
By identifying and modifying variables like these well in advance, you’ll eliminate or significantly reduce the need to make fixes after you’ve deployed your sites. And you’ll contribute to the kind of seamless experience that today’s consumer has come to expect.
What happens if I don’t internationalize?
Suppose that last week your company only supported English language sites (with minor market-specific variations) for the U.S. and Canada. But this week, you learn that your company’s business plan includes expanding to several new, potentially profitable markets in Europe. You suddenly need to go global.
If you’ve planned ahead and properly internationalized your website and CMS, you’re already prepared to localize content for your new global sites. (As you recall, internationalization enables localization.) So you’ll benefit from streamlined workflows and processes that help you control costs and speed time-to-market. But, as noted earlier, if your web publishing environment hasn’t been internationalized, you’ll likely need to re-engineer your sites as they’re being localized—which can be difficult, costly, and time-consuming.
How else do I benefit from internationalization?
Because internationalization ensures that your website is “global-ready” and properly prepared for efficient localization, the process yields several benefits by:
- Enabling you to create sites that can be easily adapted for local relevance—and efficiently developed and deployed—across multiple languages and locales. (All of which contribute to more, and higher-quality engagements and improved global CX.)
- Ensuring that unique language character sets, including text and symbols, display correctly by requiring that your site conforms to the Unicode standard. (See below.)
- Helping to reduce localization costs and accelerate globalization projects through streamlined processes and workflows—for you and your localization vendor.
- Avoiding website design issues and promoting brand consistency by using global design templates.
- Accommodating a range of cultural and market-specific conventions.
What is Unicode and why should I care?
Historically, to represent language characters, computers assigned a specific number using various encoding systems. But no single encoding system contained enough characters to cover all languages or even some single-language character sets. And the different systems conflicted, using the same number for multiple characters or multiple numbers for the same character. There were also corruption issues when data passed between different encodings or platforms.
Enter the Unicode standard. According to the Unicode Consortium, “Unicode provides a unique number for every character, no matter what the platform, no matter what the program, no matter what the language.”
Armenian ligatures—from an alphabetic presentation forms/Unicode character code chart—overlay various other letters and characters. Source: unicode.org, The Unicode Standard 7.0, Copyright © 1991-2014 Unicode, Inc.
Building cars and multilingual sites: More alike than different?
To illustrate the role internationalization and localization play in global web development, industry guru John Yunker (of the Global by Design blog and bytelevel research) uses the analogy of manufacturing automobiles for different markets:
“To minimize costs and maximize returns, a car manufacturer often develops a car model that can be easily adapted to numerous countries, instead of developing new models for each country. Doing so requires internationalization. The internationalization stage is the “behind the scenes” stage. People don’t buy internationalized cars; they buy localized cars.
“Internationalization mostly entails the extensive planning and testing that go into creating this global template of a car. For example, if the car will be sold in both the U.S. and the U.K., allowances must be made for placing a steering wheel on either side of the car. Some car manufacturers might decide during this process that some markets are just not worth the cost of localization efforts. It’s a cost/benefit decision that you’ll also have to make as you internationalize your website.
“After internationalization is finished, the car can be localized for each market. The more thorough the job you do of internationalization, the less time you’ll spend on localization.” (Yunker, 2003, pg.172)5
How do I know if my content management system is global-ready?
Your CMS (or web content management system, WCMS) is the foundation or framework of your website, enabling users to work together to create, manage, and publish content.
Successful website localization projects depend heavily on the capabilities of these systems, which are becoming increasingly advanced. The good news is that most CMSs on the market are designed to cope with multi-language, multi-locale content as well as multi-channel publishing (via Unicode standards and other functionalities)—but some are not.
To make sure that your CMS supports multilingual web publishing, ask yourself (or your marketing, web, or IT colleagues) the following questions. While this list is not exhaustive it will give you a strong sense of where you are in the process.
Since you’ll be managing several global sites through one CMS, you’ll want to be sure that it’s fully internationalized and provides a robust feature set. A truly global CMS includes integrated language/locale menus for authoring tools, multilingual interfaces for business-critical applications, out-of-the-box workflows, and more.
Is my website global-ready?
Before beginning the translation process, it’s recommended that you perform an internationalization audit. An audit ensures that your website is global-ready, meaning that it has the following characteristics:
You’ve done a pseudo translation to test your CMS and website design by replacing Western characters with multi-byte (East Asian) or bi-directional characters (Hebrew, Arabic, and languages that use the Arabic script)—without causing layout issues.
Even though most of today’s CMSs are Unicode-enabled, you’ve confirmed that all platforms and systems associated with your website also conform to this character-encoding standard (including databases, marketing automation and product information management [PIM] systems, and CRM software, etc.).
Develop your site with globalization in mind to ensure that it’s global-ready
An example of a fully internationalized website—Emirates’ German and Thai sites.
The best way to ensure that your website is fully internationalized and ready for localization is to develop it from the start with globalization in mind. And to seek help from the experts at this critical stage of your website globalization process.
Most medium-to-large-sized organizations choose to partner with an experienced, reputable LSP. Why? Because they’re best equipped to help you successfully internationalize, localize, and globalize your multilingual sites—so you can increase meaningful engagements and improve the global customer experience.
> For more insights, expert commentary, and best practices on the entire multilingual website globalization process, download the new ebook, The Definitive Guide to Website Translation.