Waking up to the Arab Spring

Arabic is among the top ten online languages of the world, whether you look at the size of the online population that speaks the language or the spending power of that audience.

However, it is also the most underserved language on prominent websites around the world — it appears less frequently, with less available content, than either the size or economic potential that the online audience warrants. How do I know this? Of the 2,407 prominent global sites our research team looked at for our Global Website Assessment Index report published in October 2012, about 30% posted content in only one language. Half of them offered between two and nine languages, and the rest, 20%, published in ten or more languages. We looked at which sites offer Arabic by industry, size of company, headquarters country and popularity of sites by traffic volume. In total, 7.8% offer Arabic. Contrast that with Russian, a language with an online audience of similar size and spending power. Over 20% of the sites we examined offer Russian, which is about the percentage of sites I would expect to find offering Arabic.

Not only is Arabic under-represented on the websites of the best global brands, it’s also missed by the great majority of Fortune 500 companies — a paltry 5% of these offer web content in Arabic. In comparison, 12% of Alexa’s 500 most popular websites by traffic volume offered Arabic as a language option. The depth of the disparity found between the size of the online Arabic-speaking community and the lack of content in that language suggests that an opportunity has been missed by global brands.

In another piece of research we published in 2012, “ROI Lifts the Long Tail of Languages,” we calculated that the percentage growth of the Arabic-speaking online population (33% over 2011) was faster than any other major language except Russian (at 37%). Its share of the world online wallet jumped an astonishing 61%, as did Russian. That’s a faster pace than Simplified Chinese.

The scarcity of Arabic on prominent global sites likely reflects the difficulty of operating in many Arabic-speaking countries in recent years. Cultural aversion may also play a role in the wake of some US-based companies such as General Electric facing negative publicity for selling products to “unfriendly regimes.” For example, Dutch sites are more than three times as likely as US sites to include Arabic. UK sites are almost twice as likely. Companies based in Asian countries, too, miss this important language.

One reason is that the so-called Arab Spring has brought a surge of people online. It has also reignited what might be called the “outward glance,” culturally speaking. In 2002, the Arab Human Development Report found that the Arab world was translating only 330 books annually and that the cumulative total since the ninth century was about 100,000, “the amount Spain translates in one year.” Ten years later, efforts have stepped up.

Another factor that corporate planning offices should take into account is a generational shift that favors Arabic. In the older generations, education in French was common in North Africa — or English, in the case of Egypt. Until now, online services companies have found that business visitors from Arabic-speaking countries often opt to use European language interfaces. What’s changing now is that younger generations more often prefer Arabic in most contexts and especially social media. Where early internet adopters had to use other languages or nothing, today’s users expect to find Arabic content and won’t habituate to French or English.

One of the challenges in offering Arabic language content and services is “Which Arabic?” It’s not a single language as spoken in the streets of such disparate countries as Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, in the written form, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) provides a ready option for global brands. Popularized in the classroom and in the media, even the spoken form is becoming increasingly familiar to Arab speakers everywhere thanks to, you guessed it, the internet (and Al Jazeera). Global brands can safely adopt MSA as their initial and default form for communication with Arabic speakers online. Where adaptation to specific countries or communities is warranted, a more local form can be used. Lifestyle-oriented content ranging from the benefits of beauty cream to a Coca-Cola branding commercial may require a more local linguistic nuance. When you are addressing Arabic-speaking audiences online, the first step is to determine what level of localization is required for your product category, content type and information context. If the context is a corporate website, a more formal approach may work even for a consumer brand. If the context is an ad insertion on a local website, further localization may be needed even for business-to-business brands.

Publishing your website in Arabic requires special analysis to account for a broad range of issues, but global brands can no longer afford to ignore this economically vital language.