Localizing your site for new markets: Tech, design, legal and SEO
Entering a foreign market with care and awareness of local needs and customs can explode your business, but launch a sloppily localized site without sufficient preparation and it could hurt you more than it helps.
Below, I list my localization workflow, including translation, technical issues, cross-cultural design, search engine optimization, and legal considerations. Take these into account, and your product will have a much higher chance of success in your new target market.
Before we get started
Before you start the process of localization, think carefully about your reasons for doing so. Growth-stage companies habitually set their sights on international expansion far too early.
If you haven’t reached product-market fit in your home territory, you’re unlikely to magically find it simply casting your net wider. If you are reading this post with the expectation of translating your product so you can double your userbase in six months, first ask yourself whether you’re doing so because you are unable to achieve the same kind of growth in your initial market.
If that’s the case, perhaps put the same amount of energy in understanding your existing users and whether the product is truly meeting their needs. When you get this equation right, it’s likely you’ll experience authentic demand from foreign customers who have heard about what you’re doing, and how it’s solving a problem that they share.
How to translate your site
The first thought that pops into most people’s heads when they think about localization (adapting software for a specific region, abbreviated l10n), is language.
Although good localization must also consider technology, law and culture, and that not all countries speaking the same language are alike, a good translation of your online presence is important.
If your are serious about your international expansion plans, start with just one new language or country, and spend the time and money necessary to get it right, rather than try to cover the entire globe. This territory should ideally share similarities with your home market.
Localization is about much more than just literal translation. It is about the understanding of cultural differences, appreciation of local humour, and knowledge of conventions in typography and design, among many others.
This is why you should try to learn the basics of the language yourself: A few months of study are enough to notice obvious mistakes and roughly assess the competence of your writers.
It’s also good to have a native-speaker as part of your team, to glance over the progress every once in a while, or better yet, take charge of the project.
Be careful though. In some territories, a job posting requiring a ‘native-speaker’ can be seen as discriminatory, since a hiring decision should be made on the basis of competencies and experiences. What’s more, a non-native speaker who has spent enough time in the country of their second language may have more finely-tuned insights into the needs of the market you’re entering.
Whenever we decided to launch a new language course at LinguaLift, we started by spending a few weeks in the country where the language is spoken, taking lessons ourselves, and consuming hours of music, books and movies to appreciate the local culture. This made it much easier to select qualified authors for the course, and understand the nuances of how a particular language can be taught best.
When we consult edtech businesses on localization and expansion into new markets, I recommend at least some of the management team to take a trip to their country of choice, learn some of the language, talk to locals, read about the country’s history, and imbibe the maximum about the local culture. If you are serious about penetrating a market, the small expense will pay ten fold.
It can be tempting to just throw a Google Translate extension on your website, but the results are almost guaranteed to be lacklustre and may scare away more users than you will attract. Again, if you acquire even a basic understanding of the language, you’ll quickly realize how misleading automated site translation can be.
A better alternative is Gengo, an online crowdsourced translation service which seamlessly connects you with human translators around the world, at a very reasonable price of $0.05-$0.12 per word. They even provide an API, so you can automatically translate new content, comments and reviews as they are published on your site.
Better yet, make use of a specialized service for web and mobile interface translation such as OneSky. It can be tricky to translate a site word by word, without actually using it, and OneSky make the process seamless and reliably by showing screenshots within its translation interface.
You can start here for the UI, then switching to the cheaper Gengo for actual content within the page.
Localization uses the infrastructure and flexibility provided by the internationalization (i18n) of your site — the process of designing software so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes.
Even if you are unlikely to tackle foreign markets in the foreseeable future, it is a good idea to think about potential future localization issues as you build the product, lest you encounter insurmountable problems once you are ready for expansion.
A constant issue around localization is the choice of the right site structure. Here are just some of the common options:
1. Including both languages on the same page
The first choice is commonly made by beginner bloggers and webadmins because it requires little to no technical setup and is reminiscent of translation on real world packaging.
This comes with a range of problems, however, from bad SEO (search engine optimization), through cultural mishaps, to bad maintainability. Google selects the most relevant pages for top results, and a German description of Cinderella is of little help to someone who searched for “Cenicienta” in Spanish. You may also want to change illustrations to accommodate local laws and customs, offer payment in different currencies, or remove certain posts and products altogether in some of the regions.
2. Translating the page slugs (www.example.com/uber-uns, www.example.com/a-propos)
A common alternative among first time publishers is to simply create new pages with slugs (page links) translated into different languages. /about-us then becomes /uber-uns in German, and /a-propos in French. This is straightforward at first, but comes an absolute mess to maintain when you run into accent encoding issues, foreign alphabets, or false friends & homonyms.
3. Buying separate TLDs (top-level domains) for each region (www.example.de, www.example.fr)
The third option, buying a separate domain for each region, is recommended if you have a physical presence in the respective countries. It will boost your ranking on local versions of Google, but it comes with its own challenges. Buying separate domains can get expensive, with some regional extensions costing hundreds of dollars per year. You can also get bogged down in legal paperwork, and you’ll of course have to promote each site separately.
4. Separating the site by subdomain (de.example.com/about-us, fr.example.com/about-us)
A slightly simpler alternative to the above is to put each site on it’s own subdomain. This removes the need to buy and administer separate domains, but can still be technically challenging to maintain, and it doesn’t resolve the need to market several independent websites. Note that Google treats subdomains as distinct web properties, so domain authority won’t be shared across the localized versions.
5. Prepending pages with the language code (www.example.com/de/about-us, www.example.com/fr/about-us)
Finally, probably the most common and robust approach is to keep the slugs in English, but prepend them with a language code, so the English /about-us becomes /de/about-us for German, and /fr/about-us for French. This is fairly straightforward to set up with a good CMS (content management system) and provides flexibility needed to avoid many of the problems mentioned above.
Whichever option you choose (each has its place, depending on your site’s needs and limitations!), adapting a site to other markets comes with many challenges, and I recommend working with a professional developer with prior experience in localization.
You can also read more about the topic in the excellent International Search Engine Optimization checklist at Moz, and watch their 5 Dos and Don’ts of International SEO Whiteboard Friday:
Redirect or suggest?
Related to site structure is the question of redirects. Should you push visitors to localized versions of the site based on their location? Should you block access from other countries entirely?
This has been an ongoing discussion, and the consensus among usability experts is to suggest your users to switch to their country’s language, but make it an option, and notify them of the option unobtrusively in the header.
After all, location detection can be unreliable, more and more internet users choose to browse through a VPN (virtual private network) because of privacy concerns, and tourists visiting a foreign country don’t always speak the local language.
If you your industry imposes DRMs and draconian licensing agreements, you might have to be more strict about who can access localized websites, but in all other cases, we recommend just a small notification informing visitors that they can view the site in another language.
User interface design
Flags and language icons
In addition to informing visitors of localizations, you should also provide a clear switch between versions, in case they change their mind, or want to compare content in different languages. This is where one of the biggest discussions in internationalization circles comes in: icons.
Historically, websites have used country flags to identify each language when space is limited in navigation, but this is frowned upon today, and for a good reason. After all, some languages are spoken in multiple countries (e.g. English), some countries have several official languages (e.g. Switzerland), and some languages aren’t used in any country (e.g. Esperanto).
Under pressure from consumers, governments and interest groups major companies that can afford such micro-localization have moved to long lists of language-country pairs, with separate sites for Switzerland (FR), Switzerland (DE) and Switzerland (IT), for example.
But even this leaves a problem: What icon do you use to reference the list?
This remains an unresolved question, and although several designers and organizations have tried to propose a universal language icon, the controversial icon of the globe remains to be the most widely used and recognizable. Just make sure to show the right side in each country!
Furthermore, remember to double each language in the list in native script. There’s nothing more confusing than looking for English in a language selector entirely translated to Chinese or Czech.
This is only a taste of the exciting, polarized discussions around internationalization, and there are many more, from the placement of Israel under Europe or Middle East, through the name of Macedonia and Taiwan, to domain names in language-specific scripts and alphabets.
Languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Hebrew are written from right to left.
Users speaking these languages will not only read the text from right to left, but will process the entire site in the other direction, resulting in a reverse F-shaped pattern of eye movement.
The first step is to set the HTML text direction of your localized site to rtl.
<html dir="rtl" lang="ar">
If all of your content will be translated into the target language, this simple change alone will get you close to a good user experience for your users.
Things get much more complicated if you are launching a language learning site where RTL words and sentences will be mixed up with English, and you’ll have to battle with endless workarounds to get punctuationt to display on the right side of the text, and fix other problems.
This is why you come across mistakes like this on many language learning sites, even renowned ones:
While text alignment and font display issues are an obvious start, there are other design elements one must also take into account.
For example, you’ll want to:
- flip arrows, progress bars, and pagination
- reorder items in horizontal navigation, such that the most important item appears on the right
- on pages divided into columns, display the leading column on the right
- place buttons on the left side of the search bars
You can see some of these features in this screenshot of the Israeli news site ynet:
In addition, for Arabic and some other languages, you might have to increase the font-size — a standard font-size used for Latin characters would hardly be readable. This is also true of non-RTL languages using more complex scripts, such as Japanese and Chinese.
Culturally relevant icons
It’s easy to forget that even the most basic icons are not universal.
Take for example The Pioneer plaques, launched into deep space in hopes of reaching extraterrestrials.
The part of the diagram that is among the easiest for humans to understand may be among the hardest for the extraterrestrial finders: the arrow showing the trajectory of Pioneer. Arrows are an artifact of hunter-gatherer societies, and finders with a different cultural heritage may find the symbol meaningless.
The same problem exists here on Earth, and in spite of ever increasing globalization, a common user interface element in one country may be unknown, or uncomfortable for members of a different culture.
Foursquare is an impeccably designed app, but the iconography is too US-centric, and breaks apart in other countries.
As a Russian who certainly enjoys a good hamburger from time to time, I am unable to associate it with “Dinner”, which makes me hesitate before choosing the category, no matter how long I’ve been using the app. Similarly, the beer & fork (“Dinner with Drinks”) and wine glass (“Dinner Date”) icons are not relevant for Muslim users.
Doing business in another country means that the laws of that country will be applicable for any business you do.
For example, if you are a US company selling a product to a French consumer on a French-localized website, then you will have to be compliant with French and European consumer law. This could mean offering additional warranties, cooling off periods, and support.
Pebble watches, for example, offered a two-year warranty in the UK compared to a one year warranty in the rest of the world, due to the stricter consumer protection laws that the UK enjoys.
Remember, you are not tempting foreign customers to your website, you are bringing your website into another country, and just as you’d adapt to the local customs as a guest, your business must also do the same.
Localizing your edtech product is a big undertaking, well beyond just sending the content to your neighbourhood translation agency.
You should think carefully about the markets you want to approach, and whether it makes sense to do it right now.
When you decide to go ahead, I hope that the tips above will help you do it with the commitment that international expansion requires.