December 31, 2002, 12:00 AM

E-commerce across borders: How to take a web site global

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Translate your gateway. For example, instead of using a link to the Spanish site that says “Spanish,” use “Espanol;” or use “Deutschland” instead of “Germany.” Details such as these are often overlooked by web developers who don’t look at their sites from the points of view of non-English speakers.

Finally, sometimes you’ll need to localize a web site into multiple languages to effectively cover one country, such as Switzerland. Although a relatively small country, Switzerland has four official languages: French, Italian, German and Romansch (a variation of German). Again, Ikea provides a good example with its Ikea Switzerland site available in French, German, and Italian.

Lost in the Translation

Translation is an art and like any art, is much more challenging than it appears. While writing requires proficiency in one language, translating requires proficiency in two languages. If you decide to translate your brand names or slogans, don’t skimp on translators or testing. A minor oversight can result in embarrassing results, such as the Clairol “Mist Stick, a curling iron that was sold in Germany under its English name. In German, “mist” means “manure.”

Pay close attention to the colors, icons, and photos you use on your localized sites. For example, a bride typically wears white to a wedding in the U.S., but a bride in China will wear red. Black signifies death in the U.S.; in Asia, white signifies death. The significance of icons also may vary by locale, such as a mailbox, which is blue in the U.S. but yellow in Sweden.

So much of web globalization has nothing to do with the web site: for example, employee training, product localization and product support are all important to selling in other countries, but have nothing to do directly with the consumer web interface. Before your company takes the leap into a new market, be sure you can support not only the web site but the many customers and questions it will generate. Here are some key challenges to keep in mind:

Payment. Always make sure your site can accept the preferred payment method of your target locale. For example, credit cards are not commonly used in Germany, where many customers prefer to pay by money order or debit card. For small businesses, PayPal promises to solve this problem with cross-national support for currencies such as the euro, Canadian dollar and yen.

Support. When you start receiving e-mails in different languages, do you have people prepared to answer them? And how about phone calls, faxes, and letters?

Manage Expectations. When you begin localization, you probably won’t be able to offer all forms of customer support. But make it clear on your site what types of support you do and don’t offer.

Given that companies ranging from Microsoft to McDonald’s now owe half their revenues to the world outside their native countries, globalization is showing little signs of slowing. As long as companies find success in new markets, they will need to localize their web sites to serve these new markets.

This means that just as you can expand your business into a new market, so too can companies in foreign markets expand into yours. The time is now to begin preparing your globalization strategies. Web globalization isn’t easy and it isn’t always cheap, but you’ll find it’s a lot easier and profitable to adapt your web site to the world than it is to wait for the world to adapt to your web site.

John Yunker is president of Byte Level Research and has advised retail companies ranging from Wal-Mart to Victoria’s Secret. He is author of Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies, published by New Riders Publishing, August 2002.

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