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April 25, 2012

Designing Websites for Foreign Markets

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Adapting your website for a global audience is a relatively easy way to reach huge numbers of new customers. The internet has seen rapid growth in recent years – mainly in non-English speaking countries. The numbers of Chinese, Brazilian and Russian users are soaring, but businesses have been slow to tap into the growing demand. Taking your website global means you can take advantage of a relative lack of content and competition.

It’s not quite as simple as just translating your site. There are plenty of pitfalls waiting to trip up the would-be global entrepreneur. It’s important to take time to research your audience and adapt and localize your content. And while the world might seem to be getting smaller, there are still significant differences in design and cultural preferences. A site that’s a hit in Stockholm won’t necessarily appeal to viewers in Shanghai.

Here are a few tips for building websites with global appeal:

Keep the Design Flexible

The best time to think about translating your sites is at the design stage. Using Content Style Sheets (CSS) makes it easy to change the content while keeping the same template. Building flexibility into the design means it will work with other languages. For example, German and Finnish tend to take up around 30 percent more space than English, while Chinese text tends to be shorter.

Don’t forget that speakers of right-to-left languages such as Arabic or Hebrew also tend to “read” sites the opposite way. Moving navigation bars and buttons for these languages will make your site easier to use.

Speak Their Language

It’s hardly surprising that most people are reluctant to make purchases if they don’t understand the language. It might be tempting to simply rely on Google Translate or other free translation tools. Although these have improved a lot in recent years, they still tend to result in over-literal results, with no awareness of context. It’s worth paying native-speaking translators or copywriters to ensure you have sparkling, fluent content.

Just as there are differences between American and British English, different varieties of Spanish, French and Arabic aren’t the same. It’s best to have a separate website for each country if possible. For example, bombacha is a type of men’s field pants in Latin America, but female underwear in Spain!

Choose an In-Country Domain Name

Many search engines tend to favor local domain names, such as .co.uk in Britain or .jp in Japan. This is particularly important in China. The most popular search engine, Baidu, gives a heavy weighting to Chinese hosted sites. An in-country domain also builds trust among users, who tend to prefer the local option.

The good news is, there is usually less competition for top domain names in foreign countries. While the best .com names have already been snapped up, you have a better chance of securing a domain name with one of your top keywords in Sweden or South Korea.

Think About the Design

Color, image and design preferences all tend to vary between cultures. While Northern Europeans tend to prefer a sleek, minimal design, Japanese and Chinese users favor more colorful, interactive sites. You don’t need to completely change your basic template for a new market. But taking into account these differences will give it a wider appeal.

The meanings of colors tend to differ between cultures. While red means “luck” or “happiness” in China, it represents mourning in South Africa. Green is associated with nature and the environment in much of the Western world but should be avoided in Indonesia, where it symbolizes “death” and is sometimes referred to as a “forbidden color.”

Engage With Your Customers

There are few things more frustrating than struggling to find a contact form on a website, or calling a number that isn’t answered. Make yourself easy to find. If your company is based in the US, it’s unlikely a customer in China will want to make an international call. If you can’t afford local sales staff, try to restrict communication to email or online forms.

Social media is also an important way to build your brand and engage with the customer. You can incorporate social networking feeds into your website design , encouraging users to follow them. Of course, the key to success is being social! Make sure you reply promptly to questions and interact with users.

However hard you try, it can be impossible to keep customers happy all the time. Monitoring your online reputation across a language barrier is often tricky. Set up Google Alerts for your brand name, and check social media carefully for any negative comments. Respond to any issues as quickly as you can.

There’s no substitute for research and local knowledge when designing websites for international markets. Taking time to understand the culture (and competition) will help you avoid common mistakes. But with a little effort, you can reap big rewards by reaching a much wider audience.


Christian Arno is the founder of translation services provider
of Lingo24, Inc. . Launched in 2001, Lingo24, Inc. now has more than 200 employees spanning four continents and clients in more than 60 countries. Follow Lingo24, Inc. on Twitter: @Lingo24

4 Responses to “Designing Websites for Foreign Markets

    avatar Maninder says:

    Nice Article!
    My doubt is that if I want to buy country specific domain names like.com.au or .co.uk do I need an address in that country or anybody can book it?

    You don’t need an address in that
    country, in general, certainly not for .co.uk or .com.au, but I guess there could be exceptions.

    avatar Anonymous says:

    I’m pretty sure CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets. Not Content Style Sheets.

    Yes one can certainly not be too careful with localisation, which the long list of localisation blunders from big brands attests. South Africa has 11 official languages representing more than 11 ethnic groups and, although the first searches on Google all agree that “red represents mourning in South Africa”, this is not true in general and one will have to be very careful if one’s target market encompasses all of these groups.

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