What the best global websites have in common

In the novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said for global websites — the successful ones, when it comes to best practices, are also very much alike.

What do these successful global websites have in common, based on 20 years of studying them and working with the executives who manage them? A few things. Global best practices have evolved over time and have not only benefitted the organizations that support them but also the people who visit the websites, as the result is more consistency among websites in regard to languages, usability, ecommerce, and navigation. While there will always be exceptions to the rule, I find it valuable to first understand what these best practices are before deciding to head in a different direction.

Speaking in 30 or more tongues

For the past 15 years I have produced the Web Globalization Report Card, a report benchmarking the websites of leading global brands — companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Zara. Based on this research, the average number of languages supported by these websites has more than doubled since 2004, from 15 in 2004 to nearly 33 languages this year.

Granted, this number reflects the very largest global companies, so if we were to survey a larger sampling of websites, the average would most certainly drop. But even when we do survey a larger number of websites, one trend remains consistent: the continued expansion in languages. And the reason for this is simple — the internet connects devices, but languages connect people. As more people around the world go online, the language requirements an organization must meet to communicate with these people will only increase.

Chinese is now the dominant online language, followed by English. But even if you support these two languages, you’ll only reach 40% of all internet users. The largest slice of this pie chart is “all other languages.” This slice includes languages such as Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and many other languages that any global website should already support. What this means is that you can support the top 15 languages on the internet and still miss vast numbers of potential customers.

Support 48 or more languages, and your website will communicate with approximately 95% of the world’s internet users — which is the ultimate reason why companies such as Google and Facebook surpassed 48 languages years ago. Languages are a means to an end. Companies that are serious about going global are equally serious about supporting languages. And if you don’t support a given language and all of your competitors do, consider what message you are sending to your current and potential customers.

Global consistency and local flexibility

Compare the home pages of Honda and Volvo in France and Brazil in Figure 2. Notice how the designs used by Honda vary considerably, while Volvo relies on a more consistent design template.

Both Honda and Volvo support brands that are globally recognized as well as a significant number of languages. But the Volvo website, by leveraging a global template, is more efficiently managed around the world and provides a better user experience. Keep in mind that visitors may arrive at your .com site and then navigate to a local site, and if the designs change significantly, this creates an unneeded distraction.

Given the benefits of global templates, one may wonder why all companies don’t support them. The major reason is that these companies are often highly decentralized, with independent regional and local offices that are not only comfortable maintaining independent websites but insistent on staying that way. For those in the global office, it can be difficult to get all of the offices on the same page (and some markets may always exercise a strong degree of independence). But to the extent that you can collaborate with regional and local offices to understand the value of global templates and standards, the greater the cost savings and the greater the benefits to end users.

And should local offices resist by saying they need the power to promote unique products and services, point to Amazon. As shown in Figure 3, the France and Japan home pages share few products in common (except for Amazon-branded products), but they both share a common template.

This balanced global/local model allows regional and local teams to focus on content, a much better use of their time. Also, by getting local-office buy-in, you have a degree of accountability. I’ve witnessed numerous instances of local offices blaming headquarters for the lack of engagement with the local websites. By involving your local offices every step of the way, they become a key factor in generating local engagement and return on investment.

Ideally, before a company localizes its website, it should first undergo a process of internationalization, also known as making the website world-ready. What this entails may include redesigning and reengineering the website and software to support different languages and scripts, currencies, locales as well as other local and regional requirements. By investing time and planning up front, companies often save considerable resources down the road as they localize their websites and content for each subsequent market. It’s akin to packing for a long international trip — you need to plan accordingly, taking into account different currencies, power outlets, cultural expectations and climates. Unfortunately, some companies approach going global like packing for an overnight trip and find themselves lost in a country without the right currency and dressed inappropriately.

Investing in “scenario-based” localization

Setting a translated word-count goal for each localized website may be a sound way to manage costs, but it’s generally a poor way of ensuring that the local websites are relevant or useful to end users. That’s because you never know exactly what content or feature a user wants localized. And if you can’t afford to localize everything, you are likely to frustrate a certain percentage of users — you just don’t know who these people are.

However, let’s suppose you take a scenario-based approach to web localization. Instead of asking what number of words need to be translated, ask what scenarios need to be supported. Some of the more common scenarios companies focus on include:

• Lead generation/information requests

• Direct sales via online channel

• Indirect sales via partners or dealers

A scenario-based approach focuses your global and local teams on ensuring that the local websites have true value for end users, even if they are not fully localized (which few local websites are).

Localizing your website

one photograph at a time

Of course, localization is about much more than text. Visuals (and video content) may be more expensive to localize, but I’ve found that this content is what sets companies apart from their competitors in developing truly local sites.

NIVEA remains one brand that does a particularly good job with localizing its models (though it still could do a great deal more). Figure 4 shows home pages from China and Kenya.

Conducting a visual audit

To ensure that you go global the smart way, I recommend conducting a visual audit of your source website before handing it off to localizers. An audit takes into account not only the content of the visuals but the manner in which they are deployed.

Among the questions a visual audit should address:

• Is each image absolutely essential? Consider the impact on website performance (another best practice). Avoid simply dropping in stock photos to fill gaps in the design.

• For your global template, try to avoid using any other image than your logo. Keep in mind that your global template must work across all target locales — and every visual carries a performance hit as well as potential cultural risks.

• For icons, do they follow globally established (or informal) standards? If not, are the icons clear to users across all of your target markets?

• For photographs of people, does each photograph send the right message? Have you considered style of dress and body language?

• Have you considered using local models for your local websites?

• Are your website colors sending any unintended messages?

• Does your image strategy scale? If you find you’re expending great resources to localize images when supporting only a few markets, imagine the challenge of supporting 30 or more markets.

A user-friendly

global gateway

If a visitor cannot find a specific localized website, the website may as well not exist. As companies increase the number of local websites they support, the challenge of directing users to these sites grows in importance. There are many details involved and many ways for users to get lost along the way.

I’ve identified four major elements a company may employ to direct web users to local content, illustrated in Figure 5:

• Country codes (such as .de, .fr, or .it)

• A visual global gateway

• Geolocation

• Language negotiation (also known as language detection)

While your website does not have to utilize all of these elements to be successful, it should at a minimum support a visual global gateway that is easy to find and allows users to self-navigate to local websites.

Performance-based design

As companies expand their global reach, they inevitably discover that not all mobile subscribers enjoy unlimited data plans, let alone the buying power to pay for unlimited data. Those companies that localize their websites to remain fast-loading and functional for users with older devices and slower connections are going to be perceived as more user friendly in these markets.

Unfortunately, most global websites are moving in the opposite direction — gaining weight (in kilobytes). According to my research for the 2019 Web Globalization Report Card, the average weight of a mobile home page has more than doubled from 3.1MB in 2016 to 7.1MB today (Figure 6). This is an alarming trend.

A 1.5MB web page takes seven seconds to load using a moderately fast 3G connection. For a typical mobile web user in India, a 7MB web page could take 15 seconds or more to display. In other words, many of the global websites we see in use today are penalizing more than a billion internet users simply because they rely on slower networks. 

While companies do rely on content delivery networks to help improve the page loading time of their websites, they can do so much more by setting internal weight limits. If you assume that your competitors are also relying on content delivery networks, then the one variable you can control that will give you a clear advantage in the eyes of your customers is the weight of the website. I recommend that all mobile websites target a ceiling of 1MB — an aggressive goal to be sure, but one that will ultimately benefit your customers and keep you ahead of competitors. Limitations can be highly positive because they force everyone to do more with less. For example, companies that set weight limits not only limit images but also rely more heavily on vector-based images, which not only save weight but display crisply across the full range of devices.

Looking ahead

If there’s one certainty about the future of the internet, it is this: it will be available in more languages. India is going to play a major role in compelling more companies to support more languages. For example, there are more Hindi speakers within India than there are global speakers of Russian, Portuguese or French. And it’s estimated that only 10% of Hindi speakers also speak English.

In September of 2018, Amazon officially debuted support for Hindi on its mobile website and within its mobile apps. Amazon also supports Tamil and Telugu through its Prime Video site, which portends broader support for these two languages in the years ahead. Based on the 2019 Web Globalization Report Card, just seven out of ten websites reviewed now support Hindi, and many fewer support Tamil, Urdu or other Indian languages.

And let’s consider the website that emerged as number one in the 2019 Report Card — Wikipedia. Based purely on community contributions, Wikipedia supports more than 280 languages, which indicates that many millions of people around the world want to see their languages supported and are currently seeing very little in their languages.

So even though web globalization is now a well-established practice and profession, in many ways, we’re still just getting started. Tolstoy, who spoke 13 languages, would probably have agreed. He wrote, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” This is also true of websites. A multilingual internet grows one website at a time.