In theory, the worldwide web opens up your business, blog or personal website to an audience spanning the entire globe. In practice, creating a site that is both accessible and appealing to viewers from different cultures is not quite so simple.
The casual surfer from the UK might be under the impression that the internet is written largely in English, but that’s because language recognition systems will direct you to sites in your language as a matter of course. In reality, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population speak English as their first language, so if you want to appeal to more than a fraction of the world’s population then you’ll need to build sites that can communicate across cultures.
Tools and Navigation
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allow you to keep your content separate from page design, meaning your text can be translated in the future without the need to redesign the entire page every time. Using Unicode UTF-8 will also allow a greater degree of flexibility. A character encoding tool compatible with over 90 written languages, it allows easy conversion to non-Roman alphabet scripts such as Arabic and Hebrew.
While English flows from left to right, some languages (including the aforementioned Arabic and Hebrew) are written from right to left, which can lead to problems with navigation bars. Vertical bars are usually located on the left of the page for left to right (LTR) language websites but, while it may be possible to simply transfer the bar to the right-hand side, it’s simpler and adds greater continuity to use a horizontal navigation bar from the start.
Colour and Design
Colours can be important in website design, helping to set a tone and reinforce a theme. It should be borne in mind however that the same colours can have different connotations from one culture to another. Orange has links to royalty and patriotism in the Netherlands and is a popular colour, whereas in Northern Ireland it’s associated with Protestantism and may serve to alienate part of the target audience. Similarly, white has connotations of peace and marriage in many western cultures, but signifies death and mourning in much of Asia.
Studies have also identified significant differences in the ways in which information is processed by ‘high context’ and ‘low context’ cultures. Viewers from high context cultures (such as India and China) have a tendency to view the site as a whole and take information from context, whereas low context cultures (Western Europe, the USA) look for explicit information. It’s not always easy to address this difference in website design but, at the most basic level, think an intuitive, interactive design versus rigidly structured and presented written information.
Domain and Server Location
Investing in a country code top-level domain for each of your target markets (for example .es for Spain or .cz for the Czech Republic) might be more expensive, but it will boost your rankings with local search engines and on the country-specific rankings of major players like Google and Yahoo!.
Making sure they are hosted on a server in the target country will also boost rankings and will prevent viewers from being misdirected via geolocation. Geolocation can identify a viewer’s location by checking the country in which their IP address is registered, and will then channel them to the appropriate language page. As many IP addresses are physically hosted in a different country, this can lead to surfers being routed to the wrong page. If you have a country-specific domain hosted on a server in that country, that page is the one that will show on any localised search.
The simplest and cheapest option for translating the language of your content is to add a translation widget such as Google Translate or Microsoft Translator to your website, which will allow visitors to translate your content into the language of their choice. This negates the need for any major redesign of an existing website, but even the best machine translation tools are likely to throw up contextual mistakes and, at worst, may change the entire meaning of your original content.
If your budget allows, this is by far the better option. A native speaking translator will interpret your content and ensure it makes sense culturally and linguistically, rather than mechanically translating it word for word, helping to retain meaning and nuance and avoiding any embarrassing linguistic or cultural faux pas.