The World Wide Web gives anyone the chance to reach a truly global audience. But there's a lot more to successfully doing so than simply setting up a single English language site and hoping for the best.
English is still the most commonly used language on the internet. An analysis of the technologies used in website construction suggests that over half of all sites on the web today are in English. If we take a look at the languages used by surfers however, English still comes out on top but only marginally. Around 27% of internet users speak English compared to 25% who speak Chinese, while Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish are all experiencing rapid growth. This is due largely to increasing internet penetration rates in developing countries (with Latin America accounting for the large rise in Spanish and Portuguese).
What this all means is that there is a surfeit of sites in English but the majority of people online around the world cannot actually use them. Additionally, many internet users who use English do so as a second language. A recent study across the European Union found that more than half of Internet users regularly visited foreign language - usually English - websites. But they placed more trust in sites constructed in their own native language. Only 18% said they would make online purchases from a site that was not in their mother tongue.
Clearly a single monolingual website can be very limiting. To truly take advantage of the vast potential reach of the internet though, your localized sites should not just be translated but optimized for practical issues and cultural preferences.
Design issues and tools
Building a new website from scratch can be a long and laborious process. Even if you decide on a series of fully localized websites, using the right tools during the initial design process can allow you to adapt and translate your main site, potentially saving you time, effort and money in the long run.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allow you to keep the content separate from the design. This means the different elements can be changed for different markets without having to start again from scratch each time. CSS also incorporates direction identifiers. English and many other languages are read from the left side of the page to the right. The CSS direction property is 'left to right' (ltr) by default but can easily be changed to 'right to left' (rtl) for languages such as Arabic and Hebrew that read the opposite way.
For left to right languages, it's common to have menus arranged vertically on the left hand side of the page. The opposite is true for right to left languages but setting menus horizontally across the top of the page can serve equally well for both.
For language scripts, UTF-8 is an ideal tool. It's the most popular character encoding tool on the web, accounting for around half of all websites. It's compatible with over 90 written scripts, including non-Latin characters like Arabic and Japanese, and non-standard Latin characters such as the Danish and Norwegian Ø and Æ.
When planning your initial design, it's also worth remembering that some languages such as German tend to use longer words and take more space to impart the same information. Leaving extra space for translations, especially in limited spaces such as menu and text boxes, can give you a lot more flexibility.
American anthropologist and cross cultural researcher Edward T. Hall developed a concept of high and low context cultures. High concept cultures, he argued, tend to make inferences and draw conclusions from the context of a given situation. Low context cultures prefer information to be delivered in a more direct and explicit manner. Most Asian and Arabic countries sit towards the high context end of the scale, while North America and many western European countries tend to be lower context cultures.
This diagram is an illustration of the idea, with Japan and German-speaking countries at opposite ends of the scale. Many Southern European countries, including Greece, Spain and Italy, are regarded as in between the two extremes.
There are a number of ways in which Hall's theory can be related to website design. At the most basic level, users from a low context culture tend to prefer clearly set out structures and information. High context cultures prefer imagery and a more intuitive design. High context users also prefer parallel navigation, where new windows can be looked at simultaneously, while low context cultures prefer linear navigation.
Take a look at McDonalds' German site and it's almost tabular in format, with lots of clean white space and text. McDonalds China is a riot of colour, with animations embedded on the landing page and less text information immediately available.
Even the use of color can have different connotations in different cultures. In western cultures for example, yellow may be associated with cowardice. In Japan it is linked to bravery and it's a sacred color in many other Asian cultures. White, meanwhile, is associated with weddings in the west but funerals in much of the east.
There's a lot to think about when optimizing a website for global users but the potential rewards can make it more than worth the effort.