Localization is one of those things a lot of product and marketing leaders ask for. And with good reason: it’s critical for any interface or content product targeting people in multiple geographies.
While English is the most common language on the internet, it accounts for just over half of all website content. And in today's connected world, global visitors expect to read information in their own language. Not meeting this expectation can negatively impact your brand's perception.
Not only that, but MicKinsey reports that “75 percent of all countries have implemented some level of data localization rules,” making this simply a fact of life for any product with global reach.
Localization is simply providing users and website visitors with content that's relevant to them, no matter where they are – and it can take a few forms. On the simple end, you can manually create a screen for each geography. When it comes to websites, some companies take this further, maintaining an entire website dedicated to each place. I see this primarily with global companies wanting to reach an international audience while providing a local presence… or at least the feel of a local presence.
On the more complex end, you can pull in localized content depending on the visitor’s geography. Most content management systems offer a way to create containers that display different content based on variables such as location. For more advanced localization, you may need a database-connected solution.
Localization can drive up costs and workload pretty steeply. So it’s important to think about some key things up front. Understand what’s vital, what’s not, and make sure you have the resources lined up to capitalize on the actual build.
Here are some things you should consider when implementing localization.
This seems like such a silly question that I’ve had people get annoyed when I ask it. But it’s valid – and an incredibly important thing to lock down.
Start with the basics: does localization go to the country level? Region? State? Neighborhood? Is it based on the radius from the user’s location?
Many companies have sales offices or franchise locations. Those locations have territories that they’re contractually allowed to serve. If a website visitor is in Sales Territory A, but your website displays content from a location serving Territory B, you could have angry franchises – or even a lawsuit – on your hands. Avoid those headaches by defining very exactly what “local” means.
It’s easy to say “we need to localize this product.” But it takes some thought and planning to decide which parts of the product actually need to change based on location.
Items like language, local office address, and phone number format are a no-brainer. Other low-hanging fruit: any time-based information needs to account for time zones, and you’ll need to convert measurements to the metric system for many countries. You may have local promotions or events to display as well.
Depending on your industry, it may make sense to incorporate content based on local news or weather; there are services available to help feed in that data.
Then there are cultural considerations. This is where U.S.-based folks tend to drop the ball, simply because it tends not to be top-of-mind. I’ve seen photos of lush rainforests and waterfalls all over something intended for a country that’s mostly desert. Colors that in one country signify sturdiness and boldness, but in another can symbolize death.
You get the point: pay attention to your audience. And there’s no shame in asking. Your organization may have staff around the world, and they’ll be happy to review designs and content to determine how it will work for their country or region.
If this all sounds like homework… it is! It also makes the difference between a product that claims to be localized, and something that actually feels to users as though it belongs to them.
Ok, so you’ve had all your copy translated into multiple languages. And now…. it doesn’t fit!
Turns out, English is a pretty pithy language. It has so many linguistic shortcuts that we can say most things in fewer letters than most other languages. And since we usually start with English (in most cases), we’re writing copy that's optimized for English.
This means that all translated copy almost always consumes more space on the page – sometimes, a lot more. Get ahead of this problem by passing your designer some copy in the target languages so they can allocate sufficient space and provide flexible containers for expanding content.
There are plenty of languages using non-Western character sets, so make sure the technical implementation accommodates that if necessary. Account for languages that are read right-to-left. This is all a challenge, but it can be met if you think about it during the design phase.
Obviously, all the planning and design in the world won’t put actual content on a screen – it just gives you somewhere to put it. Someone needs to create or source that content. That’s true of any product, but localization multiplies the content and, thus, the level of effort.
The biggest challenge to localization is often getting the content. A software solution can automate translation, and AI-powered translation is only getting better. If you have the right technical resources on your team, a solution like Crowdin’s AI offering can handle the bulk of the work for you. Results aren’t always perfect, however, especially when it comes to cultural context.
If you’re going for a truly local feel, or if the content is highly technical, you’ll still need a human to get involved. And for actual local information, rather than simple translations of U.S.-based English content, you’ll need to go find it (although AI is picking up steam there as well).
The best local content comes from…. wait for it…. local people. They’re an invaluable resource in gathering content from all over the country and all over the world. Global organizations can sometimes task local employees with this work; just be aware that it won’t be their primary job and they may not be able to prioritize it.
Make sure you know who is providing what content, and talk to them before committing to any localization project or design approval. If your company isn’t ready for that level of investment, ameliorate some of the publishing pain by designing and organizing content to minimize the need for local content.
Content should never be “set it and forget it.” You need to ensure the content keeps flowing over the long term. And in many organizations, field staff are spread very thin, and they may not be able to keep up.
To ensure quality well into the future, make sure you can answer “yes” to these questions:
If just a few locations are holding out, which is normal, you can usually fill in the gaps with generic content that works across geographies. This approach allows for localization where it’s feasible, while eliminating voids where truly local content is not possible.
You may also identify an automated solution to fill in some of the gaps. Tools like Weglot let you set up translation workflows that automatically translate new content as it’s added. While Weglot automates many of the steps, it also allows you and your local team to edit the AI-based translations to address any nuance. The best tools will also localize currency, number formats, and a host of other details that need to be considered for that truly local feel.
More good news is that modern content management systems such as Optimizely and Adobe Experience Manager support multiple versions of content in various languages, making it easier than ever to manage this work.
If, after these factors, you’re still left with a lot of holes, it may be time to rethink your localization strategy.
With these actions – defining geographies, deciding what spaces need local content, designing to accommodate that content, identifying content sources, and ensuring regular updates – you’ll avoid some of the most common snags in website localization.
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