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The Pitfalls of Global Personalization
Launching a Web site can create some surprising attention, as local niche businesses suddenly become international operations. But for those actively seeking the global market there are many pitfalls--financial, cultural and linguistic--waiting to trip the unwary.
Posted Jun 13, 2001
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A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research .Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio.


Teddington Cheese will never be the same again. The local cheese and wine shop in southwest London, specialising in English and continental delicacies, has become world-famous. At least on the Internet. Since the launch of its Web site four years ago the Internet now accounts for over 90 percent of its mail orders. And no one has been more surprised than director Tony Parks, who came into work one morning to discover orders from as far away as Moscow and Beijing. "Suddenly we started to get e-mail orders from all over the world. Apparently people were browsing the Internet for such products only to stumble across our Web site and think: "Well, it's in London, but so what?"

However, this newly acquired global clientele has brought headaches with it. "It's not particularly easy to sell via the Web site. There are different regulations and rules for what you can actually export and we spend a lot of time on research. For example, you can't send alcohol to the US and cheese to Australia, but it's okay to send cheese to New Zealand," says Parks. The Web site is in English and therefore orders are limited to the English speaking world. But Parks realizes that at the moment there is no way he could handle queries in Russian or Chinese.

By restricting the Web site to English, Teddington Cheese is one of thousands of businesses trading on the Web that is losing out on huge potential revenues because it does not officer foreign language capabilities. The facts speak for themselves. Forty-three percent of the world's Web users are non-English speaking and Japanese is the most popular language after English, with more than 19 million users.

Parlez vous?

Recent statistics from Forester Research show that Internet surfers stay twice as long, and are three times more likely to make a purchase, on a Web site that is written in their native tongue. Also, companies which adopt a local approach claim to benefit from a greater number of longer visits, higher sales and more satisfied customers as a result of their localisation efforts.

Perhaps more significant, but hardly surprising, is the fact that more than 75 percent of Web users who encounter sites that are not in their native language either look for a translated version or leave the site. This 75 percent could, in theory, have been buying three times as much had the online businesses made sure their Web sites were multi-lingual.

AMR analyst Kevin Lucas is not surprised by the failure of companies to increase Web site potential: "The awareness about this is very low. When I ask companies what they think are the most important issues when it comes to personalising Web site content to attract new customers, localisation of languages, weights, measures and currencies never come up and that is scary. What's the point of trying to get close to people if you so manifestly demonstrate that you haven't understood their most basic need of speaking in their native language?"

There is a perception that multi-lingual strategies can be time consuming, difficult and expensive to implement. But most companies offering Web site translation and software services claim a return on investment within one year. Ken Behan, vice president of worldwide sales at Bowne Global Solutions which specialises in translating Web sites, says: "You have to see the Web site as a sales person that you invest money in to attract new clients. Just as a poor sales person who doesn't understand the markets, needs and cultures and can't communicate will not attract business, so a Web site that ignores these factors will fail to win business."

When in Rome


As daunting a task as it may seem, translating Web sites into other languages is a minor problem compared to making a site relevant to local markets. Cultural issues need to be understood so that customers and partners are comfortable, and the site needs to be easy to use and understand. The content has to be relevant to the

local market and there are issues surrounding logistics, fulfillment, customer support, regulation and taxation.

For example, Japanese people do not like to use credit cards on the Internet but will order goods online if they can collect and pay for them in a local shop. While many countries use an "X" in a tick box to select items from a list, in Switzerland and Korea the cross sign indicates the marked item is not wanted.

The technical, legal and cultural barriers that firms encounter if they want to trade internationally is something that Erwin Douglas, software tools architect at General Electric's Tradeweb, is well accustomed to. He was the lead engineer when GE Tradeweb, General Electric's global exchange service, decided to launch a purely European version of its service to offer entry-level electronic data interchange (EDI) services for business use.

"In Italy, for example, we found out that online contracts were not legally binding unless there was a printed document with a legal and handwritten signature. We had to redesign the architecture for the application so that it would support this type of functional localisation. As GE has been trading globally since the Sixties we already had people and contacts in place to address these issues, but if we hadn't had this global infrastructure to begin with, it would have been much more difficult."

Empire building


The message for those forward-looking companies who have empire building ambitions is to think globally, but act locally. Easy to say, perhaps, but how do you go about it? Not surprisingly, vendors have sprung up like mushrooms to help businesses through the process. Most of them partner with in-country translation services to help ensure that translations are accurate and error free. Translation workflow software vendors include companies such as Idiom, Trados, Uniscape, Wholetree, GlobalSight, Transparent Language, Welocalize and WorldPoint.

While many of these firms are well established and

have vast experience of globalising the Web-based parts of a business, some of them will not touch separate systems like standard Windows applications. Companies offering a more complete range of services, from software localisation consultation to management tools and translations, include LionBridge, SDL and Uniscape. Others, such as Bowne Global Services, ALPNET, BerlitzGloballNET, and Lingo Systems, provide outsourcing for both software and translation/ localisation services.

Up-front costs for implementation vary among the vendors, as does the time taken, which is dependent on the amount of content needing localisation and the number of languages required. However, the translation and tailoring of the Web site marks only the beginning of the challenge. Managing and maintaining the information across numerous languages is a complex task and the major costs involved will typically involve the ongoing localisation and management of the site, rather than the initial set-up.

Research firm Techserver estimates that the amount of non-English content will grow from 20 percent today to more than 50 percent by 2003. IDC estimates that the globalisation software market will grow from $169 million in 1999 to $1.6 billion in 2003, though analysts believe the real boom will be held back for at least a couple of years.

"As companies get bigger, they must recognise that if they don't localise their offerings for a particular market then they are simply laying themselves open to competition from companies that do localise," says Lucas. "And, it's worth remembering that a multinational company that doesn't localise is exposed to competition not only from other multinationals, but from smaller, local companies." As foreign language Internet use continues to increase, the global audience will gravitate towards the sites that best serve their most basic needs. The small local and savvy company that adapts to face this challenge could truly discover a whole new world waiting to do business.

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