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Wired World

Parlez-vous...Sprechen Sie...Fala......Web Site?

By Kristin Gambill

Originally Posted

Before I start this week’s column, thanks to the guest columnists who contributed to the Wired World during my absence.

When I packed for my recent European vacation, I picked out a little sexier fare than what I normally sport in my hometown. Comfy jeans gave way to sultry black slacks. My favorite alma mater sweatshirt was replaced by a chic sweater set. Why? I wanted to blend in better with the locals while traveling abroad. Living in the one remaining world superpower, Americans often fail to consider the world beyond our own borders. Sure, we drink their lager and sip their champagne, but do we really give any other consideration to how other countries do things? If you think the answer to this is "yes," I have one word for you: "Nein." As more and more countries hop on line, if we don’t truly start thinking globally, the "Ugly Americans" will end up with egg on their mugs. Consider this: In 1999, a report published by eMarketer revealed that 98 percent of all Web sites in 1995 and 78 percent of all Web sites in 1999 were written in English. Just one year later, a study by Vilaweb reported that 68.4 percent of all Web sites were written in English. Truly, the only international language is love; if you don’t have a multilingual site, you’re missing out on a quickly growing on-line population. With as little effort as I took to create my European look, you can give your Web site an international makeover.

Contact Information

  • Include Your Country. Ever surf the Web and stumble upon a site that’s exactly what you’re looking for, only to find out, after reading through several pages, that the company is based in New Zealand? The London Wine Academy has unique wine tasting events that would make for a fun date with my husband. While the name should be a clue that they’re located in England, it’s not specifically written anywhere on their Web site. And, after all, there are "Londons" in Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia, as well as a London in Ontario, Canada. Make it readily apparent that your business is located in the United States by adding the country to your address listings throughout your site.

  • Gathering Information. When collecting contact information from clients and others who visit your site, be sure that your form is globally friendly. Remember that some countries have provinces instead of states and that "postal code" is more generic and widely understood than "ZIP code." If you are unable or uninterested in selling your goods and services abroad, politely inform site visitors of this at the top of your form, instead of letting users learn for themselves after they've already filled in half the blanks.

  • Posting Your Number. When providing your phone number, remember to include the country code and area code so that your customers and potential customers have them at their fingertips. If you have a toll-free number, be sure to communicate that it works only in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Be sure to list your business hours and time zone so that those calling from abroad are able to make their international call to your company at the appropriate time of day or night. Eddie Bauer is one of the most overseas-friendly, U.S.-based on-line retailers with the ability to ship on-line orders around the world, and 24/7 customer service available through both email and a toll-free number. However, they miss the mark with their telephone contact information by providing a toll-free number that works only in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. This is easily fixed by adding the direct-dial telephone number, including country code, for their international customers.


  • Be Forward. Reduce misunderstanding by writing your site copy in a simple, straightforward manner. Avoid slang words, jargon, and idiomatic expressions that may be confusing to those who speak English as a second or third language. Phrases like "sleep on it," "give someone a hand," and "on the cutting edge" are likely to be translated literally. Words like "blabbermouth," "gobbledygook," and "tightwad" most likely won’t appear in a dictionary and will certainly stump your international customer.

  • Don’t be too short. If you use abbreviations such as MBA, PRSA, and U.N., be sure to disclose parenthetically what they stand for, at least in the first instance on each page. Remember, even international organizations can go by a different name in other languages. For example, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is OTAN in French and the European Union (EU) is UE in Portuguese.

  • The Buck Stops Here. If your site has products and services for sale, be specific about pricing. Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan are other countries that use dollars for their currency. Listing prices as "US$" will certainly clarify things for your customers.

  • English spoken here. In the "real world," English is spoken as the primary language in just seven countries. A study published on the UK edition of ZDNet in October 2001 reported that a mere 4.45 percent of the top 50 global Web sites could respond accurately to a non-English email. Some of the world’s biggest companies didn’t respond at all to an email message submitted in a foreign language, including French, German, Spanish, and Japanese. This non-response includes such corporate giants as Wal-Mart Stores (US), Ford Motor Co. (US), BP Amoco (UK), Daimler Chrysler (Germany), and Mitsui and Co. (Japan). Phil Scanlan, chief executive officer of Worldlingo, recently said, "With over 50 percent of Web users preferring to speak a language other than English, Internet sites are going to need to use multinational communication if they are going to maximize their consumer base." Your customer service mantra: As you expand your operations into foreign countries, be sure you have the skills on staff or with a quickly accessed vendor to translate foreign correspondence.

Look and Feel

  • Color Matters. Select graphics, colors, and photos with attention to cultural differences. For example, in the United States, white is a symbol of purity, while white symbolizes death in Asian countries like Japan and China. In Egypt, green symbolizes fertility and strength. However, in France, green symbolizes criminality.

  • Symbolic Gestures. Think globally when selecting symbols. While most American homes have a mailbox, most Dutch homes, for instance, have a slot in the front door for mail delivery. An envelope is a more universal symbol worldwide than a mailbox.

  • What’s in a name? To make your site more appropriate for overseas markets, consider obtaining a local domain name that contains the country code, such as "www.marketingbabes.ch" for Switzerland or "www.marketingbabes.dj" for your key market in Djibouti.

Does this mean that you need to go out right now and translate your site into five different languages, and start courting foreign business? That depends. If your company is currently selling products and services abroad, or is thinking of expanding into a foreign market, perhaps. But, although your entire business may be local, your Web site is visible in even the most remote corners of the world. Even if you haven’t considered selling your products or services abroad, you never know when an order might come through from overseas. Implementing the easy, "no-brainer" ideas discussed above will quickly give your site an international facelift and you’ll look better for it. Like I did in France!

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