10 Steps to a cross-cultural website

If there ever was a perfect time to expand your business abroad, now is that time. With the internet connecting people across the globe, today’s entrepreneurs can sell their wares to a much broader audience than two decades ago.

The first thing you need to know when expanding your business is that 78% of Internet users don’t speak English at all – so in short, you must speak to customers in their own language if you want to maximize your international revenue.

Adapting your website for different cultures doesn’t just mean translating your content. You must consider the cultural differences between the target markets and find the most appropriate way to address them.

Here are ten steps towards building a cross-cultural website:

Research the target audience

Before you create a website aimed at international markets, the first rule of thumb is that you need to do your homework on the countries you want to target. Look at the culture of the local market – what do they like, what don’t they like? Is it a liberal/conservative country?

Also, check your competition and think of ways to stand out and get ahead of them – if there is glaring gaps in the offering of your ‘competition’, you can arrive on the scene and exploit this.

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Top Leven Domains (TLDs) and Subdomains

Once you know what your target market is you can buy an independent top-level domain (TLD) for each country you target (e.g. .DE for Germany, .ES for Spain).

If getting a TLD for each of your foreign language websites proves expensive, you can buy just one TLD and create subdomains or subdirectories for each particular language or market (e.g. www.example.com/de or http://de.example.com).

Navigation and usability

You need to make sure your website is navigable for all languages that read from left to right (e.g. English, German) and right to left (e.g. Hebrew and Arabic). A shortcut to ensuring both RTL and LTR languages are catered for is through installing a horizontal navigation bar, instead of a vertical one, which means your design can remain constant irrespective of the script.  Keep the design simple and the menus visible.

Translate & Localize

When you translate your content in a foreign language, make sure you hire a professional translator and don’t use machine translation. Nothing makes a customer run faster from your website than poor grammar, spelling mistakes or otherwise incomprehensible content.
You must also understand that one language is not always good for two same-language markets – there are differences between the French used in France and the French used in Canada, for example. And the same goes for the various German, Spanish and even English dialects of the world. Localize your content before launching a foreign language website…and this means considering dialect as well as language.

Don’t translate your keywords

Translating your high-ranking English keywords is not a good idea for SEO. Local internet users may use jargon, synonyms or colloquialisms instead of the direct translation. So, even a correct, dictionary translation may not be what people actually use to search the internet locally, which is why you must research the actual terms used by people in that specific country. Google AdWords’ keyword tool is a good starting point for this.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

Use CSS when designing your foreign-language websites. It helps keep your content separated from the design, meaning you can easily change your website from a language to another. For example, some languages are naturally shorter/longer than other languages which is why space can be an issue if your design and content are part of the same entity. With CSS, you won’t have to create a page from scratch when switching from English to Arabic or when you decide to flip the template.

Unicode UTF-8

Designing your website for more than one language can be a problem when you think about the variety of characters you’ll need – not all alphabet systems have 26 characters from A-Z. Luckily Unicode UTF-8 is ensures compatibility with over ninety written languages that will allow you to change the script between Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic…any script.

Avoid Flash

Waiting 5 minutes for a website to load means you’ll lose visitors. Flash-heavy websites will be a problem for customers who don’t have a speedy broadband internet connection – and this is more common than you may expect in many developing countries around the world. So providing the option of a flashy ‘bells and whistles’ website and a standard text-only site will cater for all parties.

Another thing you might want to consider is that search engine spiders cannot read your Flash content, which will affect your search engine rankings. Text is the food of search engines in all languages.

Colors

As a general rule of thumb, a light background with dark text is the best choice when designing any website – irrespective of language or culture. And blue is regarded as one of the most universally positive colors and is the color of trust. Ever wonder why so many social networking sites use blue?

Some companies tend to use their own preferred colors regardless of the target market, but it’s important to note cultural differences when creating your website. For example, red represents ‘good fortune’ in China and ‘purity’ in India, but is synonymous with ‘danger’ or even ‘love’ in many Western cultures. And whilst Orange can be the color of autumn or Halloween, it has religious connotations in Ireland.

Images

Make sure the images you choose are not offensive in the country you target.  Pay attention to  the differences between ‘high context’ cultures (Asian),  which prefer backgrounds filled with images and colors, and ‘low context’ cultures (American, British or German) that like a website simple.

Bear in mind the above tips and you should be able to create a comprehensive, appealing and thoroughly optimized website for the market of your choice.

About the author

Christian Arno is founder of Lingo24, a professional translations company that specializes in website localization. With 150 full-time employees across the globe and clients in over sixty countries, Lingo24 has a turnover of $8m USD.

Contact Lingo24 with a translation request mentioning http://designmodo.com/ before 31 December 2010 and receive a 10% discount on your first order.

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