2020 was difficult for many retailers, particularly for brick-and-mortar. However, for online retailers or those with online services, some of hardship of 2020 may have been alleviated somewhat. At the time of writing, it’s been predicted that there would 56 percent and 70 percent year-over-year increases in online sales in November and December, and a huge 113 percent increase in global online sales in October.
E-commerce is comparatively booming, particularly when it comes to cross-border and international sales. The pandemic opened up the world of online retail to many people and forced the hands of those that had resisted its convenience and opportunity up until then. Even with vaccines being rolled out, it’s very unlikely that this move to international sales will go back into the box. Because of this, we’ve seen a huge amount of movement by marketing, content and localization teams into international strategies. If you haven’t thought about it, how do you ensure you don’t get left behind?
Retail or web localization is the process of providing a seamless, near native experience for international consumers. It starts at the search and search engine optimization level, meaning consumers can find you in their native languages and local search engines, it flows through all your content, images, the backend, and at a high-level, deals with the cultural nuances of local regions.
I’ve just described a lot of moving parts. There will be a lot of marketers, content managers and retail execs looking at that list and imagining the amount of work it would take to localize their site into another language, let alone multiple languages. However, with smart use of technology, people and workflows you can easily localize your site in the first quarter of the year and spend the rest of 2021 reaping the benefits.
The traditional workflow for this type of project would have involved professional translators for each language manually translating thousands of lines of text. After a lot of back and forth and completion of the translation, this would then be passed to developers to action the translation. Those same developers would also then have to consider the multilingual SEO of the site — and this doesn’t take into account any updates that might have happened to retail lines in between the original translation and the upload. This is a job that would take months and thousands of dollars for each language.
Now, however, there's technology to support you. Machine translation and localization products are affordable, quick and scalable. Plug it in, flip the switch, and thousands of lines of copy are translated in an instant, including media titles and tags. What’s more, they automatically translate your metadata and add hreflang tags, which allow your site to be indexed on search engines.
There's a question of accuracy with machine translation. Although improving all the time, machine translation is usually around 80 percent. For some retailers that might be enough, and they will certainly see benefits in sales at that accuracy. However, many retailers want to provide the best experience possible to their customers, regardless of their location. Therefore, it can be prudent to have a human translator review the copy before you push it live. But the hard work is already done, and the time it takes to review copy is significantly shorter and cheaper to do. You'll still be saving months of time, effort and budget with a combination of technology and people.
Consider Design Early On
Like any big project, working in silos with a localization initiative can cause you headaches. Although usually driven by marketing, content or localization managers with the support of web developers, you also need to ensure that brand guardians and designers are involved early on. Languages not only differ in sound and syntax, but also in terms of the space words occupy in a given sentence. Some languages, like German, Dutch or Hungarian, use compound words, which means that two or three words in English may translate to single long words in some Germanic languages. While a Japanese word count can be almost twice as long as the English word count. This can potentially cause overrunning sentences, broken strings or overlapping text. This can be particularly relevant for customized fonts, which are not easily translatable and can cause unnecessary difficulty when going multilingual. This can then have a knock-on effect with your brand, so it’s important to have clear discussions with brand guardians during the process.
What’s more designers have to spend some time thinking critically about things like color use. In the U.S., black is worn at funerals, however, in China, white is considered the symbol of mourning. Which leads me to …
The cultural considerations in localized sites can be quite broad. I’ve already mentioned color as a key consideration, but you'll also need to consider image use and particular phrases.
There are some obvious areas you need to think about, such as understanding that many images of a "typical" American household aren't going to resonate in the same way for people in other regions. There are also more subtle elements you will need to think about. In some countries a thumbs up gesture is considered offensive, while in others showing the soles of your feet is seen as disrespectful. Therefore, not only do you want to avoid using images that show this, you probably don’t even want to use the phrase "put your feet up!" Even sometimes claiming you’re from America, rather than the United States, can be seen as politically incorrect in some South American regions.
The heavy lifting in localization can be streamlined with technology, saving you months and significant amounts of money. A well-executed localization project should mean that customers around the world won’t even notice they're buying abroad, and you'll only get that considering culture, so it also pays to have some cultural understanding on the team.
Website localization can be vital in boosting international sales for retailers around the globe. It can seem like a daunting and difficult task, and although it will require some resource to be effective, it’s not as daunting a project as many people expect. Particularly if you can get it right first time. Even small forays into the field can have significant gains for many retailers.
Augustin Prot is the founder and CEO of Weglot, a WordPress translation plugin.
Related story: Global E-Commerce in a Post-Pandemic World