Smart people always buy shares when the price goes down and sell them when the price goes up. So it is with localization of your website for Central and Eastern Europe’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Despite the current escalation of confrontation between Russia and the Western world and overall political and economic instability in the CIS region, the sooner you localize your website for this region the better. The hard times will soon be over, recession will give way to new recovery and those who have prepared themselves for entering this market well in advance will be the first to take advantage of positive changes.
What language policy should you choose for entering these countries and why does it really matter? Why do you need to localize your website now if you haven’t done it yet? How can you do it right and what else should you take into account?
Choosing a language policy for the CIS market
Due to their ex-Soviet pasts, many countries in this region are bilingual. They have their national languages as the official language and Russian as a second (mostly unofficial) language. Yet in many countries Russian still prevails over the national language in everyday communication.
This is the case, for example, in Kazakhstan. The official language is Kazakh. But the overwhelming majority of the Kazakh population still speaks Russian. So if you consider localizing your website for the Kazakh region, it is more reasonable to translate it into Russian than Kazakh or you won’t efficiently cover your target audience. The language strategy for offline businesses will depend upon the industry itself. If you deal with local authorities or if you work within strictly regulated niches you may be required by law to translate the documentation into Kazakh. If your potential customers live in smaller towns and villages you will definitely need to translate your documentation into both Russian and Kazakh, because Kazakh is still natively spoken by around 65% of the population, though the majority of them live in the country’s outskirts.
Let’s take Ukraine as another example. Ukrainian is the only official language in the country. That means that major newspapers, most of the official sites, higher education, TV channels and other media are all in Ukrainian. In Western Ukraine most people speak Ukrainian, but the majority of people in Eastern Ukraine speak Russian, although Russian has no official status in Ukraine. According to media sources, there are over 15 million internet users in Ukraine and this number is increasing constantly and quickly. Russian-language traffic, in most cases, currently prevails considerably over the Ukrainian speaking audience. For example, the Google AdWords Keyword Tool provides the following statistics for the search query “rent office in Kiev” for Ukraine: last month around 2,900 users typed the Russian equivalent of this search query (арен¨’а офиса Кие¨”) into the Google search field versus only 50 users who used the Ukrainian equivalent (орен¨’а офісу Киї¨”). So if you target the Ukrainian region with your business, the best option would be to translate your website into both Russian and Ukrainian. Do not expect many visitors to your Ukrainian language version right away. However, in a longer-term perspective Ukrainian localization is a winning strategy. Here are some additional facts to consider in this regard:
Younger people tend to use Ukrainian more (especially taking into account the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine).
With time, more Ukrainians refuse Russian language versions if there are options in Ukrainian.
A Ukrainian version will result in a favorable reputation among Ukrainians as compared to other similar resources.
Windows products were localized into Ukrainian a while ago and more internet users are switching to the Ukrainian versions of software and resources where possible.
From a marketing perspective, as still not many global companies translate their websites into Ukrainian or Kazakh, localizing your online presence will be a chance to stand out. Top companies in their respective industries such as Google, Sony, Adobe, Microsoft, SAP and so on do translate online materials and user-oriented content into languages such as Ukrainian, Kazakh and Georgian.
If you have a one-time commercial project with Ukrainian partners, you can ask them what language they prefer for your documentation localization — Russian or Ukrainian. But if your project requires any communication, approvals or other involvement of local authorities, you will most probably need to translate the project documentation into Ukrainian. Some niches (like medicine) are legally regulated, so if you want to introduce some new product to the Ukrainian market you may be required by law to translate any manuals, specifications and other supplemental documentation into Ukrainian.
The language situation in CIS regions is additionally complicated by the fact that from time to time local governments try to promote local languages in their countries by adopting new laws to artificially restrict Russian usage. So when entering a particular country, you will want to do some research. You can do this yourself by using the internet or alternatively by asking a local translation agency about the current language situation in their particular country.
Google Translate and your CIS localization
For many people this will already be obvious, but never use Google Translate to machine translate your website for CIS countries. Google Translate is a great tool that helps many people to remove language obstacles for gist translations and the like. But it is still far from being perfect, especially when applied to Cyrillic languages. Your website visitors would understand what your website is about, generally speaking, but due to the more complicated grammar of Cyrillic languages, with several declensions and conjugations, automated website localization with an embedded Google Translate module will bring you more harm than benefit. From a search engine optimization point of view you get low quality content, which in turn will harm your organic rankings. This means that you have no chance to get visibility in search engines and reach people who look for your products or services in Google or Yandex, which is another popular search engine in CIS countries.
It is especially pertinent for Russia. Around two-thirds of online searches in Russia go to the Yandex search engine, with Google having just around one-third of the market, and Yandex is much stricter in terms of the content quality. Yandex may just ignore a machine translated website completely. But even if you manage to get some visitors to your website, what will these visitors think about your brand after reading the poor text content of your website? How will they perceive the product or service that you’re trying to offer them? Will they come up with positive associations with your brand? Will they buy something from you? Will they ever return to your website?
CIS localization for those who don’t plan to enter the market soon
And what if you don’t plan to enter the CIS market in the near future? What’s the point of localizing your website for this region? There are several major benefits of CIS localization.
Multilingual website support is usually typical for larger companies dealing with international markets. You know it and internet users know it, too. So additional language versions of your website let your website visitors know that you are operating in all those markets. And even if your website visitors (your potential customers) decide from your website that you’re only pretending to look bigger than you actually are at the moment, a multilingual website is still a positive sign for them that you think global, are forward-looking and ambitious.
If done right, CIS localization is a great opportunity to improve your brand awareness. Taking into account that Russian is one of the ten most spoken languages in the world — according to some statistics, even one of the five top languages since Russian is widely used in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and so on — you should definitely add this language to your website.
A multilingual website always contributes to your online promotion and increases the amount of potential customers to your website. When people look for a product or service on the internet they will usually use their local language — Spanish in Spain, Russian in Russia, and so on. Any search engine will attempt to show them the most relevant websites corresponding to their queries. One of the basic parameters for relevancy here is the same website language versions as the language of the search query itself. It means that if you have no Russian language version of your website, your chances of being visible in Russian-speaking countries are basically zero. Don’t forget that search engines take into account various quality parameters of a web page when ranking it in search results, and one of the quality parameters includes the domain authority and the domain age. The sooner search engines find the Russian language version of your website, the better it will be for your future brand promotion.
Many of your potential customers will speak English but it will still be easier for them to read about your company and products in their native language. If they have to choose between you and your competitor, they will definitely prefer a partner that has already made their life easier by localizing all the technical and marketing documentation into Russian.
Thus, even if you have no serious plans to go global in the near future, it still makes sense to add multilingual support to your current website and add Russian and other CIS languages to the list of supported languages. And from internet promotion and a search engine optimization point of view, the sooner you do it the better.
What else you should take into account
After the fall of the iron curtain, masses of goods entered post-Soviet territories, a huge, fresh market with many opportunities. Were manufacturers prepared to talk to customers in their own language? No. Did they lose some of their potential profits? Probably yes. But what else happened? Buyers had very poor command of English, so they required translations to understand how to use their new equipment. Since manufacturers did not provide Russian manuals, translations were done randomly, more often by nonprofessional translators or by students. This resulted in badly written instructions, often containing major mistakes. The situation has changed dramatically since then, but many users who work with industrial products are still used to not being important enough to be offered documentation and specifications in their language. You do not want to keep them disappointed if you want them to work with you or buy from you, right? So take this simple step — translate for them.
Another concern that we often hear from our contacts is that they won’t be able to process requests from their new Russian-speaking leads, “unless we have a Russian-speaking employee, we cannot communicate with our customers.” Well, indeed, solving this communication problem is not a straightforward task, but why not trust this to the vendor that translates your website? Vendors should already know the specifics of your business, and most of the top localization companies now offer turnaround times of a couple of hours or even less, so one solution is to ask them to do email translations for you.
In addition, this is where Google Translate can serve its purpose — you can get the idea of your new request in no time and then decide whether it is worth your attention. Either way, do not be afraid of Russian-speaking leads. It’s a clear sign that the Russian market is a new opportunity for you. Solving a task with communication is just an ordinary challenge that will help you benefit from this opportunity.
Successful companies always manage the process of localization for their marketing and technical documents by themselves or via multilingual vendors when going global. They understand that leaving translations to dealers or local partners may hurt their brand, affect customer experience or reduce time to market. When end users get poorly documented products they nurse a grudge against the brand itself, not the dealers. Centralization of your localization process is the key to effective growth in terms of content volumes and quality, and it should be done as part of your general marketing strategy.
When we say that many companies manage their documentation localization by themselves, we don’t mean in-house translation teams. Quite the opposite. We are now seeing a new trend where global international companies trust their localizations to smaller, local, native-speaking language professionals in the market they plan to enter. This is because they see more value in partnering with their vendors directly, thus removing unnecessary production pipeline segments, contributing to time to market reduction and more transparency. They also do not trust localizations to their in-house people if localization is not the main specialization of those people, because in many cases it is bad both for the employee and for the translation. But that’s a topic for some future article.