Why You Should Localize Your Website: An Introduction
By Evan Norman
For this first article on website localization (localization is making your
website appropriate for a target locale, translation is a part of this process),
I thought it would be useful to provide a general overview of the technology
landscape as it exists in the minds of non-localization industry businesspeople
I’ve spoken to since getting out from behind my computer.
Not every company that markets overseas needs their website localized, but most
of them do, and would discover vastly improved relations with their buyers.
I hope that after you’ve finished reading this, if you’ve ever dismissed the
idea of having your website localized, you will think about it again in a new
light. If you know someone in your organization who would benefit from this
article, I encourage you to pass it on. Here are a few statements that I have
encountered during this period that seem to be the general consensus.
Website localization is too expensive.
First, website localization isn’t the same thing as translating your entire
website. Let’s say you have a dozen pages (contact info, company background,
basic product info, etc.) of light text, as well as 30,000 pages of technical
product specs, and only a fraction of those specs are for products marketed in
Taiwan. You wouldn’t, therefore, need to have the entire website translated into
Traditional Chinese. When considering the cost of localization, common sense
scalability of content to be localized for a particular audience is always
Second, if you have invested in a sales representative or distribution
partnership in a country, leveraging that investment by localizing key portions
of your website for that country is relatively small as an incremental
additional expense. If you have the budget to maintain a professional website
that has its English content regularly updated, the additional budgetary
considerations (remembering scalability) are marginal.
Finally, what would you have said about a competitor in 1999 that had yet to
create an English website because it was “too expensive”? After laughing
hysterically at them for allowing so many prospects to slip past them and come
to your business via search engines, you would have said “don’t bother putting
up a website, the Yellow Pages will do.” A similar thing is happening right now
with your competition in the global marketplace. The competition is thrilled if
you haven’t bothered to localize your website, because if they have localized
theirs, and they are getting all of the non-English search engine hits your
Website localization is just for the big guys.
This simply isn’t true for a number of reasons. Some of the big guys are not
practicing localization yet (at least not to the degree that they could be)!
Also, as I discussed above, localization can be scalable—not only to the needs
of your target audience, but to be scalable in cost relative to the size of your
company. If you are in an organization that is in the early stages of going
global, take a look at some of your competitors, and see where they are at in
terms of having their websites localized. You will probably be surprised by the
number of companies similar in size to yours offering similar products and
services that have their websites localized to some degree into major Asian and
Website localization is not in our budget at this time.
It was noted that one Fortune 500 company recently found it was spending more
in its budget for toilet paper than on website localization. This seems to me to
be an odd, yet not uncommon, state of priorities for many companies. For most
companies, website localization doesn’t even make it into the budget as a line
item, because the final cost is so inexpensive relative to many other budgetary
considerations. Ask us for a free consultation and quote, and see if having key
pages translated isn’t in line with the cost of, say, that full-color ad (with
undetermined ROI) in a trade publication. This powerful tool drives traffic to
your site outside the U.S. by telling prospective customers that you are
definitely interested in their business.
Our site is already translated—you just couldn't find it.
I am not an amateur when it comes to trying to find a company’s website in
another language. Sometimes, I have to drill deep into the site to find the
localized versions accompanying overseas sales office contacts. Other times, I
discover a few localized sites for Germany, Japan and China buried amongst a
giant list of countries, most of which return simply the same English version of
the site. I check for IP detect/redirect functions, by searching Google for the
company name strictly within the domains of several countries. I try typing in
the company’s name with other domain suffixes.
I have to say that 99% of the time, when someone tells me that his/her company’s
website is already translated, but I couldn’t find it, it turns out that there
were a handful of PDFs and product pages buried deep in the website translated
from English into other languages. Now, if the “localized” version of your
website is hidden from both search engines and the most intrepid of web users,
how is your average customer going to find it? Many users who find your site by
brand recognition will have to read through page after page of English to find
the few pages that are in their language(s). A scaled down, localized version of
the navigational system and some of the main pages, as well as the relevant PDFs
and product specs, would go a long way to improving your company’s presence in a
Our regional offices take care of it—they handle distribution of our
product/services, have their own website, or translate our content for us.
A lot of localization vendors like to offer the “bite the wax tadpole” story
as an example of why companies shouldn’t try to perform localization on their
own. One version of the story goes like this. When Coke first introduced its
product into China, it chose phonetic representations of Coca-cola in Chinese
that accurately reflected the sound of the brand, but not the meaning.
Apparently, Coke didn’t select the Chinese characters, but the Chinese
storeowners who were selling the product did. The result was that very few
Chinese people were interested in drinking an American soft drink whose letters,
though phonetically accurate, meant “bite the wax tadpole.” This makes for a
much more interesting and stronger case for not allowing your regional offices
and distribution reps to handle the presentation of your corporate brand when
localizing your website.
Obviously, the “bite the wax tadpole” anecdote is rather simplistic, and took
place long before the Internet existed. However, imagine something more complex
like a marketing-jargon-rich website being translated literally by native
speakers who aren’t familiar with the original cultural context which bore the
content. You certainly need native speakers to translate and review your website
when localizing it into other languages. Translators are charged with building a
bridge between your company’s origins and your new audience with one end firmly
anchored to your company’s cultural identity, and the other effectively inviting
the target audience to become customers.
Our global contacts speak English.
As mentioned above, this is sort of like saying in 1999 that your existing
customers all knew you, and the rest could all find you in the Yellow Pages, so
why bother with having a website?
It is certainly true that much of the business world outside of the U.S. is
rapidly becoming bilingual, with English as its second language; however, the
fact that 80 percent of Internet users shop and buy in their native languages
should be enough to rethink this statement. Even if you aren’t selling your
product or service directly to consumers online, think of what this implies in
terms of the comfort levels potential clients have when they are seeking out new
partnerships and opportunities from the U.S.
What about your existing overseas clients? Are they getting the level of
satisfaction they deserve from the information and tools you currently provide
in English on your website? How about the cost of a customer service phone call,
where the question could have been answered in the customer’s native language
inside a brief, one-page FAQ?
Your website should be helping you build sales rather than having non-native
English customers buy from you in spite of your website.
We use machine translation, we don’t need a human translation.
There is a lot of research and money going into machine translation development
these days, but with a few exceptions using very controlled authoring and
extensive human-vetted glossaries, it isn’t ready for prime time in business
I didn’t know your company does localization.
Whether they’ve heard of McElroy Translation or not, vast scores of people
are surprised to learn that a languages services provider knows a thing or two
about text expansion, encoding issues, date/time formats, cultural
appropriateness of text and graphics, overseas SEO, functionality Q/A, etc. The
fact is, we don’t just take all of your English words and throw them back at you
in other languages so you can attempt to jam them onto your existing website. We
understand that a localization project is a tight, team effort that requires
dedicated people and can often cause a lot of dedicated headaches. The business
of coordinating a vast array of talents and backgrounds in order to help you
provide the most effective corporate message overseas—that is my company's
business, and the translation of words is only a part of it.
Evan has played an integral role in the development and maintenance of
McElroy Translation's website, and has an extensive background in multimedia
design, localization fundamentals and web programming. He's held the roles of
Web Localization Specialist and Technical Sales Support for six years at McElroy