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  1. Speak English, Why Don'tcha?
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Globalizing Your Web Site

Funny as these stories may be, if you take a quick look at your domain name, you'll see those three little "w"s. That means, of course, that your web site can be and probably will be seen by people all over the world. This poses an interesting opportunity and a potential problem. The opportunity is obvious. If you ever want to sell to customers other than those in your area, access to these markets is already built into the World Wide Web.

How important is a global initiative for your e-business? Adding foreign language versions of your web site can easily pay for itself in fresh leads and revenues.

Let's put it this way: In the future, if you're not selling everywhere, you're selling nowhere. And by everywhere, I mean technologically (on wired and portable wireless devices) and geographically (selling anywhere in the world). And if you really want to sell something to someone, you'd better speak that person's language.

The problem, however, is this.

When you make the decision to sell your goods and services to consumers in another area, more is involved than just language translation. Designing your web site for other cultures requires a complete conversion from addressing one audience to addressing another, entirely different audience. Written language translation must be coupled with necessary format changes, the creation of correct links, and finally the adoption of a vital sensitivity to cultural differences.

According to the research firm IDC, 85% of the web's pages are in English, but only 45% of the web's users are native speakers of that language—and that percentage is dropping year by year. With more than 30% of online shoppers located outside the United States (and growing), it's imperative that your e-business develop marketing strategies for the countries that you target. Your e-business can't hope to reach buyers from around the world through a simple English-speaking web site.

How to cope? First, let's address the language challenge; then we'll turn to the cultural one.

Several web sites offer services for translating your web pages into a number of different languages. One of the first to provide such a service was Alta Vista, using the SYSTRAN translation engine. Their free online web page and text translation site will translate any web page from English to French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. FreeTranslation.com is an easy-to-use site for rapid translations where you can get the "gist" of foreign language text and web pages. It too is free to use. And at TranslateNow!, you can access 28 online machine-translation systems for over 38 different languages from a single screen—for free.

But mere word-for-word translation of your product or service offer may not be enough. Machine translation is not perfect, and its results will never be able to compete with a human translator. If you're going to market to a global audience, you'll need to do it not only in their language but also be sensitive to cultural differences. Your content and product offerings must take into account local customs and must understand the difference between their customs and yours. An Italian consumer will want to perform tasks differently than a Japanese shopper. In Japan, for example, you wouldn't say, "Don't press the right button." You should say, "It would be much better if you pressed the left button."

Also, keep in mind that certain products may be offensive in certain cultures. A good example is selling products made of pigskin to a Muslim audience. Pigskin comes from pork, and pork is forbidden to Muslims. The U.S. military understood this with their recent food drops into Afghanistan. They were careful to put meatless meals in the daily ration packs.

And don't think that selling services is any easier or has fewer problems than selling products internationally. Take Charles Schwab as an example. Selling financial services in Europe should be a breeze, right? That's what Schwab thought, too. Europeans know all about buying stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. But when the online broker Schwab opened a site for clients in Britain in 1998, many of the Brits bulked at online trading. They were accustomed to trading paper stock certificates, not electronic trades. Because Schwab refused to issue paper certificates to its online customers, the site generated only 15,000 new accounts in 12 months.

Another cultural difference to keep in mind is that most of the world doesn't use credit cards. When you market to your global customers, let them know that you can and will take other forms of payment, including checks, debit cards, or electronic forms of cash.

As for your actual site translation, your e-business can use any one of several translation companies on the web to translate your product or service offer from English to other languages and be culturally sensitive to your audience. iLanguage provides translators to handle most file types on the Internet today. WorldLingo offers professional-quality translation of HTML, text, and graphics. They have facilities to localize into 42 languages, including the challenging dialects of Eastern Europe and Asia. And WholeTree.com offers technology for your e-business that handles multiple currency purchases, provides multilingual technical support, and recognizes input and provides output in multiple languages.

Ultimately, the biggest value of globalizing your web site is that it can turn foreign browsers into buyers. The Internet is no longer a site-centric, PC-dominant, English-speaking marketplace. Your e-business must be prepared to sell anywhere in the electronic bazaar of the Internet, and your digital presence must reflect this goal.

So don't be caught pulling a marketing faux pas. Keep what I've said in mind and you won't end up like Japan's second-largest tourist agency. They were mystified when they entered English-speaking markets and began receiving requests for unusual sex tours. Upon finding out why, the owners of the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed its name.

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