Localization: What It Is and How to Do It Right

The creation and maintenance of a website is complicated in its own right, and this process becomes even more complex if the site’s audience (or intended audience) includes international users. A step that is integral to the process of making your website relevant and usable to international audiences is localization.

What is Localization?

The Localisation Industry Standards Association (LISA) was an organization concerned with the translation of computer software into multiple languages, primarily in service of businesses operating internationally. LISA defined localization as follows:

“Localization involves taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold.”

Five Ways to Win at Website Localization

The Right Images

When addressing global audiences, it’s best to rely on images that are both culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive. One brand with examples of website image localization is Nescafe:

Differences in header/menu design notwithstanding, it’s clear that the Nescafe US (above) and Nescafe Portugal (below) sites were designed for different audiences. On the Nescafe US home page, images of the products (and their convenient, quick nature) are front and center. On the Nescafe Portugal home page, the company has chosen to evoke the ethical way their coffee is grown, produced, and packaged with an image of freshly harvested coffee beans.

Some other things to consider:

  • Attention to Detail: Things like mistaking the flags of two different countries or misattributing an aspect of one culture to another, for example, can spell disaster.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Every culture has its own strong feelings about particular colors, symbols, and metaphors. Does the color featured heavily in your imagery symbolize something negative like death?

When building trust and earning loyalty is the objective, images can make a massive difference.

Be Adaptive

Although it may be tempting, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work when it comes to website localization. People do things differently around the world; therefore, when going global you must adapt and adjust to succeed. For example, compare the English and Japanese websites of Rakuten to see this principle in action.

The Rakuten USA website (above) is visually simpler and “clean” when compared to the Rakuten Japan website (below). Often, Japanese websites appear overly busy to non-Japanese users. However, this is not a flaw. In fact, a well-localized site’s style and design will be consistent with local norms so it looks and feels familiar and usable to that particular audience.

One Language, Two, or a Combination of Both?

The short answer is that there is no one right answer. In some cases, it can be beneficial to “blur” the language lines rather than translate an entire site from top to bottom. Some important things to consider when making the decision about how many (and which) languages to include on a site are:

  • Language Length: Some languages appear longer when written or typed. Do the key words and phrases on your website still fit where you want them to in every language?
  • International Appeal: Localization is about attracting global audiences. Translating some (but not all) of the content on your site into another language could be an excellent way to highlight your international appeal.

What works for one website doesn’t always work for another. However, when done in moderation and with the user in mind, there’s nothing wrong with mixing languages on a localized website.

To Translate or Not to Translate, That Is the Question

Making your brand identity (personal or organizational) stick in the minds of site visitors is not easy; this is particularly true across languages. When deciding on whether or not to translate your brand’s tagline/slogan, there are a number of factors to consider:

  • Brand Identity: Consistency plays a key role in maintaining a brand’s image.
  • Nuances: Culture systems, belief systems and worldviews shape the way we think about the words we use.
  • Target Audience: Know your audience. What may be considered funny in one language may be insulting in another.

For example, Audi chooses to use their tagline “Vorsprung durch Technik” (Advancement Through Technology) in the original German in their advertisements in Japan rather than a translated version because German technology is highly respected in Japan.

Every Last Detail

Since localization mistakes can be off-putting to users and potentially embarrassing to site administrators, it’s worth the effort to avoid them. Generally speaking, website localization means paying extra attention to things like:

  • Dates: Month, day, year vs. day, month, year.
  • Time: 12-hour vs. 24-hour time.
  • Color: Avoid local color sensitivities.
  • Currency: Pay attention to conversions and formats.
  • Phone Numbers: Formats are different around the world.
  • National Holidays: Many holidays are country and region specific.
  • Geographic Examples: Keep it relevant for your audience.
  • Website Language Codes: ISO codes are important to know.

When the goal is to make a website look like it was developed in your target market, the little details are important.

5 Common International SEO Mistakes

One aspect of website localization that is often difficult to do correctly is International Search Engine Optimization (SEO). International SEO is the process of optimizing a website so that search engines can identify the countries the site targets and the languages the content is written in. This is important in so that search engines can direct users to the most relevant version of the website based on their location and language settings. It is a lot more complex than SEO for a single country/language, so mistakes are common.

Hreflang tags

In order for search engines to appropriately identify the location and language of a user and suggest the most relevant language and/or local version of the website, web designers must use the ‘hreflang’ HTML attribute.

The most common errors that occur when using ‘hreflang’ are:

  • Missing a reference to the original site – a website administrator will create a list of hreflang tags that are then applied to the various languages and countries, yet they forget to add their original language page to the list.
  • Missing return links – site admins often leave out the reciprocal link back to the original page when setting up hreflang tags. For example, if page A is linking to page B, then page B also needs to link back to page A.
  • Linking back to the main site’s homepage instead of the direct equivalent page – specific links should direct to the exact equivalent page on the localized site, but some website administrators simply link everything back to the homepage.
  • Linking to non-existent pages – this often occurs when web developers set up code that automates the creation of hreflang tags. The tags may end up referring to non-existent pages, either because the local team hasn’t set up an equivalent page, or because they localized the page URL to make it search engine friendly.

Link Building

To build credibility and ranking for each local site, brands need to provide resources for link building separately for every language and/or country. This is especially important when using country-specific top-level domains. Some markets will be more competitive than others, but quality links still need to be developed for each site.

Multilingual content

Focusing all content creation efforts on one specific site – creating one main, content-rich site will only build ranking for that site; other region-specific sites will not benefit from this. If a business wants to establish a local presence and have each local site rank well on Google, they need to create content for each region. Making the content local involves not just translating the core pages, but also updating the site by creating fresh updates and blog posts for the local sites.

Content localization

An oversight that still occurs frequently on multilingual sites is not translating the entire website to the customer’s selected language. Often the main body content has been translated, but the menus, navigation elements, sidebars, supporting pages, etc. are still in the site’s original language. Sometimes this even extends to entire privacy policy pages, which are left untranslated.

To effectively localize your site you can’t just translate keywords, you have to identify appropriate keywords, including slang, colloquialisms, and common parlance for each language and region to ensure you target the right people.

Cross-country navigation

Businesses often spend large amounts of money making multiple sites and designing them correctly, but when it comes to the users switching from one site to another, they implement dropdowns or site lists wherein the page is redirected to the homepage or shows as an error. Even worse are the sites that forget to list their localized versions and expect users to go back to Google to search for their local site version. Switching languages should be simple and users should have the option to switch over to another site domain easily.

Successful website localization ultimately comes down to the site appearing to have been developed locally, even if it wasn’t. Reaching audiences globally may seem daunting, but armed with this knowledge of best practices and common mistakes, you can succeed.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Eleanor! This is a topic that actually connects a lot with content I have been learning in my WRT 354 (Writing in the Global Contexts: Culture, Technology, and Language Practices) class. Since people come from different cultural backgrounds all over the world, it makes sense that those differences affect the way we navigate and perceive websites. I really enjoyed how you included a variety of examples in your blog to further illustrate your point. My favorite was the comparison between the English and Japanese versions of the Rakuten website. I found this article that also talks about the importance of localization and why it matters: https://summalinguae.com/localization/how-to-localize-your-website/

  2. Hi Eleanor,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. It was informative but also very well written. I didn’t think about how websites are not inherently universal, and how no two country’s viewing experiences and expectations are the same. This is very important to keep in mind as we design websites that will be intercultural. I thought it was interesting how the need to be aware of a country’s culture goes as deep as a color scheme…this is a very important thing to consider that I wouldn’t have thought of before. Here is a link to more information of how colors are perceived in different countries: https://eriksen.com/marketing/color_culture/

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