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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Everything You Need to Know About Website Localization


The internet is the easiest and most widely used means of communication in the world today. People around the globe enjoy easy access to a vast array of information, so there is significant potential for expanding your audience and your market. As a result, many companies have taken the necessary steps to translating their webpages for foreign users. This practice is referred to as website localization.

What does website localization entail? Localizing a website follows principles similar to localization in general, with some additional considerations for this particular medium.

Localization 101

The definition of localization is the practice of adjusting a product's functional properties and characteristics to accommodate the language, cultural, political and legal differences of a foreign market or country. If you're bilingual, you may have seen a translated message which didn't have quite the same meaning as the original. Either you ran into a case of poor translation (which frequently happens) or the message was adjusted to the cultural standards of the intended region.

Localization is a major component of the translation process. A direct translation isn't always the best approach because each country has its own set of customs. These differences need to be taken into account. A few examples of common adaptations are the following:

  • Numbers—Date and time formats, measurement systems, and currency vary between countries. Users of the metric system will be confused when they see measurements expressed in "feet" and "pounds," and vice-versa. Some countries use a dd/mm/yyyy date format instead of mm/dd/yyyy. There are variations in currency formats as well. Localization involves recognizing the differences and making the appropriate conversions.
  • Graphics—Images, icons, symbols, gestures, and even colors can have different meanings in different regions. What may be benign and harmless in one language may be offensive in another, so it's recommended to perform research to avoid unintentionally causing a negative controversy with the viewer.
  • Idioms and Phrases—In many cases, a popular saying doesn't translate well to another language because the cultural subtext is lost in translation, in the process. The same goes for wordplay, jokes, internet memes, and so on. In those instances, the common solution is to find equivalents in the target language. Each country has a variety of idiomatic expressions, so you have a fair chance of finding a substitute which fits the original context in the localized version. In the worst case scenario, a short note explaining the context should be included.

The process of localization is intended for the benefit of the target audience, and it is made commonplace in a variety of globalized media such as films, TV shows, books, video games, and, of course, websites. Therefore, when deciding the language(s) you want your content translated into, you should also decide which region(s) you're specifically targeting. For example, if you want to translate your website to Spanish, you should decide if your content is aimed at Mexico, Spain, or another Spanish-speaking country. By the same token, translating a foreign language to English leaves you with a choice between American or British English (or Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand English for that matter).

Is localization worth the effort?

A primary concern in website localization is the business aspect. Translation and localization efforts are costly, especially if your website is updated on a regular basis. If you include additional expenses such as domain purchasing, server costs, and site maintenance, then you'll want to make sure you're getting the desired return from your localization efforts.

If your site is a platform for goods and services, then make sure to study the international market. Is there sufficient demand for what you're offering? Can potential customers afford your product(s)? Are your transaction methods viable in the target country? Can you deliver your products efficiently? Are there any international laws or regulations that could potentially hinder your business?

Even if your site isn't commercially-oriented, then you should still investigate the appeal of your content. Although the whole point of going global is to reach out to as many people as possible, you won't find the same level of interest everywhere, and you may not have enough resources to localize your site to every language under the sun. Check your site traffic, do some research on which regions show (or are likely to show) interest in your website. This will give you valuable insight into which languages may be worth the investment. I once translated a website with soccer as the main subject; this sport is exceptionally popular in Brazil, so a Portuguese version was a no-brainer. Baseball, on the other hand, would be a very different story.

In short, knowing where your viewers are will help you to make the most of your localization efforts.

Style guides and glossaries

Whatever the purpose of your website, it's important to define the image you're going for. A style guide is basically a manual with guidelines for content creation. This document is used to maintain consistency in a variety of aspects such as design, format, tone, and code of conduct. A glossary is a list of terms and definitions used as a reference resource. In localization, a glossary will include terms and the desired translations for those particular terms.

Since many words can be translated in multiple ways, a glossary is important to standardize your website's vocabulary. This creates brand consistency, which results in stronger marketing. For example, the famous McDonald's slogan "i'm lovin' it" is always localized in Brazil as "amo muito tudo isso." Even though there are several ways of translating the original text, those exact four words are consistently used in their promotional materials. As a result, the Portuguese slogan is associated with the brand as much as the English version. The effect would have been diluted if the slogan had been translated differently with each use.

That said, it's possible that you may not want a specific term translated at all. Although there are guidelines for localization, they aren't set in stone. In some cases, you may want to preserve a term or slogan across different languages as part of your marketing strategy (like with Johnnie Walker's famous "Keep Walking"). This is precisely the kind of information that should be included in a style guide/glossary in order to maintain a unified vision across different branches of your site.

For instance, when I worked on a website translation project a few years ago, I received an Excel spreadsheet with the terminology I was supposed to use. This allowed me to keep my translation and localization efforts in line with the standards set by the company. So I can vouch for the importance of such a resource.

Keep your website intuitive and efficient

A rule of thumb in web design is that your website should be easy to navigate. Naturally, this also applies to language selection; users should be able to switch to their language quickly if the option is available. Personally, I'm an advocate of making site features as nonintrusive as possible. For example, I've seen websites forcing me to select a region/language on the main page. While this is meant to be helpful, it actually frustrates me because it forces me to stop and choose. What if I'm just fine with the default language? One alternative I can think of would be to add a language menu at the top of the page; it would be easy to spot, but it wouldn't interrupt your browsing. I've also seen sites which automatically detect your region and display your language accordingly. There are also more complex and sophisticated solutions to website language selection.

The website layout also needs to be flexible; depending on the language, the text length may increase or decrease, and even the writing format may change. Your site should be able to accommodate these changes without deviating from the basic layout and structure.

Also, if your site is regularly updated, especially in multiple languages, you may want to look into using a content management system (CMS). A CMS is basically a web editor that allows authorized users to add, remove, and change aspects such as text, graphics, images, video, and audio. This is done in the browser itself, so updates will go live almost immediately. Although you may be faced with certain limitations inherent to a CMS, the convenience of being able to manage your content with minimum effort is well worth considering.

Whether you use a CMS or not, the important point is that your site should be designed and coded to allow dynamic changes in a short period of time.

International SEO is hard work, but it is a necessity

The main goal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is to make your website appear among the top results of an internet search. Making your site easy to find is essential to bring in new viewers; that alone can influence your entire content and design, and the effort is multiplied when you think about branching out to foreign markets. Consequently, you have to adopt a SEO strategy for each and every language your website is translated into.

This is yet another reason to create a style guide/glossary for your website localization, as consistent terminology is one way of improving your website's relevance. Detailing a proper SEO strategy is beyond the scope of this post, but some tools such as Google Search Console can be helpful, and you could also enlist the services of an SEO agency. Nevertheless, if you're looking to expand your market, you should make sure foreign users will find your site just as easily as native users.

In conclusion

All of this information can be a lot to digest, and it is just scratching the surface of website localization. But it is crucial in effectively designing and running a global business or site. Here are the main bullet points:

  • Know the cultural aspects of your target country and adjust your localization accordingly.
  • Put together a style guide/glossary to maintain localization consistency.
  • Focus on the languages of regions with significant demand for your content.
  • Design your website to allow multiple language structures and dynamic content updating.
  • Make browsing easy and intuitive, avoiding intrusive features.
  • Adopt SEO strategies to make your site easy to find, even by foreign users.

Localization isn't as simple as most people think, but it isn't too complicated either if you take the necessary steps. Take the time to plan out your localization strategy and you should not face many problems in the long run.

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