10 Tips for Adapting Your Web Site for International Customers

Experts project that the population of cybernauts—not the David Bowie cover band, but rather global Internet users—will soar beyond the 2 billion mark in 2014. Nearly half of those Web users are expected to reside in Asia. What do these stats mean for your e-retail business?

One thing's for sure—an English-only Web site won't deliver the results your international brand deserves. Your potential customers are searching, browsing, purchasing, and rating products online in their native languages—and they wouldn't have it any other way. Studies show that buyers shy away from making purchases in other languages, especially when the currency is not their own. So if you'd like shoppers to find your online store and buy your products in the international digital space, the very best way is with a Web site made just for them—in their language and according to their local customs.

What does it take to adapt your current Web site for international customers? Let's start with 10 practical tips to get you speaking the language of e-commerce translation and move you down the road to multilingual retail.

1. Look (and sound) like a local. More and more search engines are taking the domain location of a search into consideration. A search made in Brazil favors .br sites over other possibilities, for example, so U.S.-based pages are less likely to rank highly in search results. The solution is finding the right domain extension for each locale you're targeting, such as .nl, .br, .au, .de, .it, .eu, .jp, or .uk. If possible, find a local hosting solution to supply your site with a local IP address as well. This way, you'll be instantly friendlier to international search bots' local bias.

2. Use a global-ready content management system (CMS). As you add languages to your site content, maintenance becomes more complex. A global-ready CMS streamlines updates for a frequently changing site, offering support for all targeted languages, smooth workflows, and the ability to easily export and import XML content. A CMS that is fully compatible with Unicode support enables your site to handle all characters in all languages with no glitches.

3. Adapt your site design to fit your market. Researching the design norms of your target markets is a key component of successful localization. For example, Japanese users are more attracted to sites with lots of graphics and banners that give multiple entry points, while Western standards tend to favor simpler layouts. Knowing the symbolism of colors, numbers, and preferences—such as typical button size—in your market can help you make these strategic UI design decisions. Red is a popular color in China since it's associated with good luck and prosperity, but the number four is feared (called tetraphobia). If you're sensitive to these subtleties, you'll make a good first impression.

4. Have a customer-controlled language selector. Automatic selectors based on IP addresses can often backfire in a country with multiple languages, like Switzerland or India. By letting customers select their own language and country from a list, you put them in control of their shopping experience right from the beginning, making them more comfortable with buying your products.

5. Give your content plenty of breathing room. When translated from English, many languages tend to expand, making content anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent longer. For Mandarin and Arabic, the reverse is true, so your text will take up less room, often becoming illegible if sizes aren't bumped up a few points. Fitting your content into your culturally relevant UI design means a boilerplate solution for all languages might not be the best one; be aware of what could get cut off or become unreadable.

6. Say hello to your customers in a way that sets them at ease. User name display makes an important first impression, so don't get it wrong. Germans don't use first names with strangers, preferring a more formal address. Instead of saying "Hello, Ada," something more like "Hello, Ms. Nussbaum" will make your customers comfortable in that market. Also be aware of name order (Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese all write the family name first) and how many names your customers might have (as few as one or as many as five in some countries).

7. Localize product descriptions in a culturally sensitive way. It's not enough to translate your existing product description copy to go with your existing brand assets. Consider market-specific norms such as sizing and measurements. Naturally, inches won't help someone used to centimeters, and that oversight might be enough for your customer to click away. Not only do words count (pants are a very different product in the United States than in England) but visuals do too. Product photos featuring a woman in a sleeveless shirt are innocuous for European markets but completely inappropriate for countries in the Middle East. The relevancy of certain product information will vary across locales, so work with a team that knows your target region well so they can help you fit in.

8. Change up your SEM/SEO strategy. In global search, keywords are unique in each market, so translation needs to be paired with keyword research. Investing in localized SEO for your new markets from the start is one of the best ways to position your Web sites for success. Your keywords can be seeded throughout your Web content and ad campaigns to truly make your site competitive in local search results. And don't forget that the whole world doesn't rely on Google. Your target countries might have local search engines like China's Baidu, which represent better avenues for investing in SEM.

9. Think about outreach and social media outlets. How you'll engage your customers to build your brand also varies depending on region and country. Social media is more than just Facebook and Twitter, so find the sites your potential customers use and go from there. With Facebook currently blocked officially in China, target a Chinese social media site like Renren or QQ (currently with over 700 million Chinese accounts). Being where people actually spend their time will also give you valuable insights about your customers' habits, needs, and likes in your new markets.

10. Don't leave customer service behind. Being reachable when your customers need you is another crucial component of success. Hiring someone in-country to handle support is your best bet, whether it's live chat, phone, or email. Translate and localize automatic emails for everything from order confirmations and order status updates to shipping notifications and feedback. Consider, too, the benefits of translating loyalty marketing campaigns, offering discounts for repeat customers or referrals as you build your new customer base.

Ora Solomon is vice president, sales and operations, at Acclaro. She is responsible for achieving customer satisfaction and operational excellence. Ora holds an MBA and a BA in psychology from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She can be contacted at osolomon@acclaro.com.


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