Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Christian Arno of Lingo24.
The status quo of the internet is changing, slowly but surely. As web access becomes more readily available around the world, English will steadily decline as the dominant language of the internet. Consider that 78% of the world’s population aren’t native English speakers, and that currently English speaking web surfers account for only 36% of all internet users (Internetworldstats.com) – if you’re attempting a global reach with your online presence, then creating a website solely designed for English speakers is not going to take you all that far.
In fact, the number of languages your website must support in order to be considered global is increasing all the time – not long ago having ten localized versions of your website would qualify you as global, today the baseline is 22 languages.
When it comes to designing a site framework that will be adaptable for more than one language and cultural group, there’s far more to take into account than just translating the text from language to language. Different cultural groups have been shown to process information in different ways – you need a design framework that is going to maintain your branding across sites, but also be flexible enough to adapt to different preferences in terms of colours, image density, animation and layout – not to mention the design challenges posed by right-to-left languages and those with different characters, or sites for countries with different internet speeds.
As a starting point, it’s a good idea to look at sites which are already global – think Google or Facebook – and see the ways in which they have created designs which are consistent yet flexible across local sites. After that, there are a few other factors you should take into account…
If you’re switching languages between a series of localized sites, you don’t want to have to rebuild your site from scratch for each new script. Luckily, there is a character encoding tool available which covers every character in over 90 different languages and will make your life much easier: Unicode UTF-8. Handily, UTF-8 is also supported by the major internet browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome) and has been adopted by the likes of Microsoft, Google, Apple and IBM.
Arabic ranks as the third most widely spoken national language in the world, but it presents a particular problem for website designers – as a right-to-left script (along with Hebrew, Urdu, Somali, Pashto, Farsi and many others), it means your traditional vertical navigation bar will have to switch sides for an Arabic site. You can avoid this problem by using a horizontal navigation bar and a horizontal top menu bar, so your layout can stay the same no matter what script you use.
You should also aim for a symmetrical site design – researchers tell us that symmetrical faces have the greatest beauty, and when it comes to multilingual websites the same is true – symmetry will make it easy for you to flip the direction of the script and the placement of images, etc, without knocking everything out of place.
It’s also worth considering the way in which you choose to link parts of your site – an Eastern audience is likely to appreciate interesting links that incorporate images or animation, but a viewer from Germany or Scandinavia will traditionally prefer a straight forward text link that tells them exactly where they are going.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are a boon for multilingual web designers – by keeping your content separate from your design, CSS allows you to switch easily between languages, and easily change style elements such as fonts, colour and spacing. Even more crucially, CSS makes it really easy to switch from left-to-right to a right-to-left language – by adding the right-to-left dir=”rtl” attribute to the necessary areas you can easily flip the script on your site.
While we’re on the subject of design tools, it’s a good idea to avoid using a lot of Flash on your site, for two reasons. Firstly, Flash files need a lot of bandwidth to load, which will slow down your loading times in countries without fast internet infrastructure (especially important since it’s now widely suspected that the Google Algorithm takes load times into account for its rankings). Secondly, search engine spiders don’t read the text embedded in Flash files, so if you’ve got SEO keywords in your Flash files then they’re going to waste.
As you’re probably aware, colors have different connotations between different cultures. While you don’t want to have wildly varying color schemes across your sites (for the sake of branding and consistency), it’s worth going with a solid template of a light colored background and dark text (for ease of reading) and a non-controversial color scheme – this color wheel may come in handy.
Content, as always, is king, not only when it comes to being useful to your readers, but also for ranking in search engines – the emphasis is switching more and more away from keywords and tags towards link building and having useful, original, regularly updated content.
Offering an automated translation tool like Google Translate may be sufficient for foreign language readers to get the gist of a page, but if you’re hoping for them to convert their visit into a purchase, then it’s absolutely essential that you get your copy professionally translated, if possible by a native speaker who lives in the target country.
This is because dialects can change drastically within languages – think of the differences in spelling and terminology between US and UK English – and also because incorporating local cultural references into your copy will help you to appear local to visitors, and therefore more trustworthy.
While it may seem daunting to start creating websites for foreign languages and foreign cultures, with a bit of technological know-how and the assistance of professional linguists, it’s really not that hard to reach out to the world and become a truly global website.
Author Christian Arno is the founder and managing director of global localization and translation agency Lingo24, which works across four continents with clients in more than sixty countries.