February 16, 2006, 12:00 AM

Arabic content destined for more multinational companies` web sites

A Byte Level Research report finds Arabic is one of the top three languages for multinational companies seeking to localize web content in the next two years. For those outside the culture, that raises special challenges for web design.

With Arabic the language spoken by more than 230 million people, it’s no surprise that a survey by Byte Level Research last year found that it was among the top three languages the multinational companies surveyed planned to add to their sites in the next two years, along with Spanish and Chinese. But companies considering localizing site content for Arabic speakers face design challenges not attached to romance-based languages such as Spanish or French, according to a new report. "Global by Design," from Byte Level.

In fact, multinational companies Adidas, Disney, eBay, IKEA and Procter & Gamble already offer localized web content in Arabic. Byte Level expects the number of multinational companies supporting Arabic on the web sites to double this year, spurred by the growing number of Arabic speakers coming online: from about 3 million in 2000 to 18 million last year.

According to report editor John Yunker, cultural and technical challenges for those outside the culture of incorporating Arab include the fact that Arabic, unlike English, is written from right to left, but numerals are written from left to right, and characters have three different shapes depending on where they fall within a word. One solution is a programming language, Unicode, which supports Arabic with embedded properties such as text direction that adjusts character display by context, according to Byte Level. Another tip is that when translating from English to Arabic, the length of the text will decrease by about 20%.

But such tips still leave retailers looking to incorporate Arabic web content with cultural issues to navigate. For example, according to Yunker, the sole of the foot is generally considered unclean – a fact Nike learned when it launched a shoe with the image of a flame, whose outline looked similar to Arabic script for the word “Allah.” The inadvertent association of Allah with a shoe produced the threat of a boycott of Nike by Muslims, Yunker says.

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