Designing Websites that Cross Cultures

Building a successful website is no small task, especially if you’re going into business – it takes time, effort and dedication, from working out your business plan and unique selling point (USP) through to designing and managing your website and optimizing it for search engine rankings.

So with all the effort you’re putting into your site, why restrict yourself to just one language market?

If you decide to just stick with a single language for your web presence, you’re cutting out a huge number of potential customers from the 1.8bn people currently online around the world. If English is your language of choice, then your native-speaking web audience will account for less than a third of all web surfers (internetworldstats).

Going multilingual with your web presence is especially crucial for online businesses, since research shows that 85% of consumers – even multilingual consumers – will not buy from a website unless they can read about the product in their own native language (Common Sense Advisory).

So how exactly do you go from being a monolingual website with one target market, to being a world-conquering behemoth with virtual branches in countries around the world?

Localizing your approach

The one golden rule is that you have to ‘think local’. This means deciding which countries are going to have a gap in their e-commerce market for your product, and then developing individual local web sites for each market, written in their language, designed for their aesthetic preferences and marketed towards their culture.

For starters, it’s important to have individual top level domains (TLDs) or subdomains for each local site, with their location set to the target country in Google Webmaster Tools.

This is for two reasons – for increased credibility with your customers in each country, and more importantly for your SEO, as Google looks to return relevant local content for local searchers.

Aesthetic preferences

Different cultures have different expectations in terms of what they like in a website – just take a look at the differences between Coca Cola’s Japanese site and their Swedish site, or McDonald’s UK site and their Indian site.

Essentially, you need a design framework that is consistent in its branding but flexible enough to change between local sites. Also, think carefully about your color scheme – colors can mean very different things between cultures, as this graph shows.

Be sure to take into account different navigation requirements between left-to-right and right-to-left languages – using a horizontal navigation system and symmetrical design should solve this.

Lastly, using CSS as your design tool will keep your content separate from your design for easy language changes, and using Unicode UTF-8 as your character encoder will make it easy to switch scripts between 90 different languages.

Content designed for the audience

Naturally, you’ll need your localized sites to be translated into the language – or even languages – of their target countries; no good building a site for China and then having all your copy in English.

More important than just translating the text, though, is making sure that your copy is written with its intended audience in mind, by a native speaker of the language with some experience of writing marketing copy. For instance, while an irreverent tone in your copy will go down well in the UK, the exact opposite is true for Germany.

Also, getting a language professional to either write, or translate and check, your copy will protect you from any embarrassing linguistic gaffes, like the time Coca Cola launched in China and had its brand name translated as ‘Ke-Ke-Ken-La’, not realising until after they’d printed thousands of signs that, depending on the dialect, their new brand name meant either ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’.

It’s not only linguistic missteps that can get you into trouble, either – not having a local’s understanding of the culture can also cause problems, such as when Pepsi was sued in 2004 by the Indian city of Hyderabad over a TV advert which saw the Indian cricket team celebrating a win while being served Pepsi by a young Indian boy – the city (somewhat reasonably) claimed the advert glorified child labour.

Tailored marketing

When it comes to your SEO, the most important things to know are to target the most popular search engine for each market – for instance Yandex for Russia rather than Google – and to never translate your keywords.

Direct translations are often not the most popular search terms – keywords are not really ‘words’, as such, but rather the phrased expression of a desire – as such, each language market will have its own particular way to describe such a desire. This may be a slang phrase, a term in the local language or phrases adopted from English or another language.

The only way to be sure that you have the right keywords is to research which keywords are used the most in each market with a keyword tool like Google’s, or if possible get an in-country SEO expert to assist.

By putting yourself into the shoes of the web users in each of your target foreign markets, you stand a much better chance of beating the local competition and growing from a local phenomenon into a globally successful business.

About the author

Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translation agency and localization specialists Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 120 employees spanning four continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over thirty million words for businesses in every industry sector and their projected turnover for 2010 is €7.3m. Contact Lingo24 with a translation request mentioning before 30 October 2010 and you’ll get a 10% discount on your first order.

  1. August 9, 2010

    You are so right on the ways to craft a site that has relevance for the local market. Frequently small business owners forget that we have multicultural subsegments in the USA and we need to do the research and format our sites for these users, especially if we desire results. Our blog is currently publishing a series of posts on how small businesses can market multiculturally.

  2. August 9, 2010

    Good job.different people all over the world need a flexible site to understand is right to have a native language for the local market.Take a look at this site

  3. August 10, 2010

    very nice article! Nice reading… 🙂 Keep it up!

  4. August 10, 2010

    This is a really interesting post. There is a lot to think about when designing for different cultures. What I found really interesting was the graph that describes what different colours mean to different countries The difference between the styles of McDonald’s India and McDonald’s UK was a shock too. It’s something I have never really thought much about.

  5. August 10, 2010

    I remember I good while back at university my main dissertation was about applying the the marketing axiom of “think global, act local” to create truly global brands. I guess it was only a matter of time before the same applied to web design.

    That said, is it a really something that the designer needs to concern themselves with? How would a designer in the UK for example effectively create for the Japanese market? Surely these are issues for the brand marketeers to determine, and then deliver using local web designers.

    Great read though, thanks!

  6. August 12, 2010

    When a brand wants to go global or reach an audience that does stretch to more then one country, then you most definitely need to consider that only a percentage of them speak English. You can see that McDonald’s have clearly done their research and tailored their websites for each country. With the example of the India website, they have still kept the brand strong with the mix of the Indian culture shown through in the pictures. Having recently gone to McDonald’s in India I can tell you that the same applies in McDonald’s itself.

  7. August 18, 2010

    Cool post, this was a really interesting read!!!

  8. August 19, 2010

    All straight forward stuff as far as content and aesthetics goes. As far as tailored market goes, it’s a good idea to have regional pages so you can cater to the local market in terms of copy and keywords and so on.

  9. August 24, 2010

    good read!! very interesting!!

  10. August 24, 2010

    Good example using Coca-Cola, they really know their market all over the world

  11. August 25, 2010

    Excellence (Bookmark) work! Now the only question is how do one stays “culturally minded” while keeping in budget. $$$!

  12. August 29, 2010

    Nice article, very informative.

  13. September 1, 2010

    Agree with you! Designing Websites that Cross Cultures…

  14. September 4, 2010

    I just required to thank you for an awesome internet site about a topic We have had an curiosity in for any extended time now. I are actually lurking and examining the feedback avidly so just desired to express my thanks for offering me with some quite very good examining materials.

  15. November 19, 2010

    Great post. Thanks for your sharing.

  16. Oliviabest
    March 10, 2011

    The article has an informative points. The main idea is just cool. Certain culture really can impact into the webdesign creation, cause some customers want to have a website with an unique, traditional appearance. And that is their right. Also I’d like you to see some of my works in such traditional design.

  17. April 26, 2011

    Awesome sharing, i like this explanation, very beautiful define all things, all these example are worth reading:)
    thanks for this nice posting:)

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