Global Web sites go native: How to make yours work for the locals

It was nearly 10 years ago that FedEx first decided to translate its Web content and applications for non-English-speakers throughout the world. At the time, it was ahead of the game, but today, companies in all kinds of industries realize it's crucial to speak to customers around the world in their native languages.

"Five years ago, I had to make the case for Web globalization and translation, but now, it's more a question of how to do it effectively, in a user-friendly and cost-effective way," says John Yunker, founder of Web globalization consultancy Byte Level Research and author of Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.

Today, FedEx's site supports 25 languages, and in many ways, it's still ahead of the game, because the company has learned one of the most important lessons about globalizing a Web site: It takes a lot more than translating words into multiple languages. "Web globalization has to be a strategy, not a task," says Tracci Schultz, manager of global content management at FedEx. "It's something you have to build into your processes and have a plan for; it doesn't just happen."

A lot of companies are still learning that. "Most are just now coming to terms with the unique challenges of Web globalization," Yunker says.

It's one thing, for instance, to translate your main Web content into a few languages. It's quite another to globalize Web functions such as shipment tracking, searching, shopping carts and reservations, which require varying date, currency and behavior conventions, he says. There's also the need to branch out into languages like Chinese that require double-byte character sets.

And it's not all about words. Images, colors and density of content convey cultural nuances as well, Yunker says. Consider as well that few Web sites remain static for long and that you're often working with people on several continents to accomplish goals like consistency, flexibility and ease of navigation, and you can see how globalization complicates Web site management issues.

Some of the lessons FedEx learned include how to create a Web design that accommodates local languages and cultural nuances while maintaining a global look and feel, how to develop an efficient way to manage the translation process, how to ensure that the site aligns with global and local branding strategies, and the importance of appointing a high-level executive sponsor to make sure everything gets done, Schultz says.

Global village

With the rapid growth in developing markets around the world, many companies have felt an increased urgency in the past two or three years to globalize their Web sites, says Kevin Bolen, chief marketing officer at Lionbridge Technologies Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of globalization and offshoring services. Indeed, in Yunker's annual ranking of the top 200 global Web sites, he has seen the average number of languages supported increase from 15 in 2006 to 18 this year. The top 20, he says, support an average of 45, and the site with the most supported languages is Wikipedia, with 250.

The top-ranking company on Yunker's list is Google, whose search interface supports 115 languages and whose Web applications, such as Blogger and Adwords, have been localized into 40 languages. FedEx ranks 36th.

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