This is an article I wrote years ago, based on my experiences running massive, complex, global website ecosystems. While this sort of work is no longer my primary focus, the advice holds up and may be helpful to folks working in this area. --Laura
Localization is one of those things I hear a lot of marketing leaders asking for. And with good reason: it’s critical for any website targeting people in multiple geographies. It’s also a nice soft step in the direction of personalization.
Localization can take a few forms. On the simple end, you can manually create a page or section for each geography. Some companies take this further with an entire website for each place. I see this primarily in global companies wanting to reach a global audience while providing local presence, or at least the feel of a local presence.
On the more complex end, your site can pull in localized content depending on the visitor’s geography. Most content management systems offer a way to create containers that display different content based on variables such as location. For more advanced localization, you may need a database-connected solution. All of this work usually requires some custom configuration or development. That means making friends with IT and/or your CMS vendor!
Localization can drive up costs pretty steeply. So it’s important to think about some key things up front.
Understand what’s vital, what’s not, and make sure you have the resources lined up to capitalize on the actual build. Here are four things you should consider when implementing localization.
1. What does “local” mean?
This seems like such a silly question that I’ve had people get annoyed when I ask it. But it’s a valid – and important – thing to lock down.
Does localization go to the country level? Region? State? Neighborhood? Is it based on radius from the visitor’s location?
Many companies have sales offices or franchise locations. Those locations have territories that they’re contractually allowed to serve. If a website visitor is in Sales Territory A, but your website displays content from a location serving Territory B, you could have angry franchises – or even a lawsuit – on your hands.
Avoid those headaches by defining very exactly what “local” means.
2. What content needs to be localized?
It’s easy to say “we need to localize this page”. But it takes some thought and planning to decide which parts of the page or site actually need to change based on location.
Items like language, local office address, and phone number are a no-brainer. You may have local promotions or events to display. Depending on your industry, it may make sense to incorporate content based on local news or weather; there are service available to help feed in some of that data. Any time-based information needs to account for time zones.
Localizing around the world requires even more consideration.
Most countries use the metric system. So any distance information needs to convert to kilometers, temperatures should convert to celsius, and so on. Phone numbers and zip codes will take a different format.
Then there are cultural considerations. This is where many U.S.-based marketers drop the ball, simply because it tends not to be top-of-mind. I’ve seen websites intended solely for residents of Japan, loaded with photos of happy white people in what look like North American landscapes. Or photos of rainforests and waterfalls all over a site for a country that’s mostly desert. Buildings in an architectural style rarely used in a particular country.
You get the point: pay attention to your audience. And there’s no shame in asking – your organization may have staff around the world, and they can review designs and content to determine how it will work for their country or region.
Pay attention to global politics. No, really!
You don’t need to be a hardcore expert, but you do need to be aware of general trends and some high school-level social studies. Are two nations currently in conflict? Then their content may require some extra attention to make sure it doesn’t offend either one. Make sure that beautiful landmark you’ve selected for everyone’s home screen is from a neutral country.
This all sounds like homework. It is. It also makes the difference between a website that claims to be local, and a website that actually feels to visitors as though it belongs in their geography.
3. Design enough space
Ok, so you’ve had all your copy translated into multiple languages. (I could, and should, write a whole post just on translation.) And now…. It doesn’t fit!
This is a hugely common problem.
Turns out, English is a relatively pithy language. It has so many linguistic shortcuts that we can say most things in fewer letters than most other languages. And since we usually start with English, we’re writing things that are optimized for English. This all means that translated copy almost always consumes more space on the page – sometimes a lot more. Get ahead of this problem by passing your designer some copy in the target languages so they can allocate sufficient space.
There are plenty of languages using non-Western character sets. Make sure the technical implementation accommodates that if necessary. And a couple languages read right-to-left. That’s a design challenge, but it can be met if you think about it up front.
Likewise, addresses are different everywhere. Some are three lines, some are five or six. There are addresses in the form of “50 meters past the intersection”. Phone numbers vary similarly. Once you know which content is going on the page, and how it may change, you can adjust content spaces accordingly.
4. Where’s the local content coming from?
Obviously, all the planning & design in the world won’t put actual content on a page. Someone needs to create or source that content, and then publish it. That’s true of any website, but localization multiplies that content and the work to get it on the site.
The biggest challenge to localization is often getting the content.
A software solution can automate some of the publishing. However, these projects can get costly and complex, and they still require one or more humans to curate content. If your company isn’t ready for that level of investment, ameliorate some of the publishing pain by designing easy-to-edit components and organizing content to minimize the need for frequent updates.
There is also software that feeds content from clearinghouses. Look into what’s available for the type of content you want to publish. Again, these can be costly and require tricky technical implementations, and the content is not always top quality, but if done right, they can enrich your site with timely content.
The best local content comes from…. wait for it…. local people. They’re an invaluable resource in gathering content from all over the country and all over the world.
Make sure you know who is providing what content, and talk to them before committing to any localization project or design approval.
5. Where will the local content KEEP coming from?
Here’s a bonus tip: Websites are not “set it and forget it”. You need to ensure the content keeps flowing over the long term. And in many organizations, field staff are spread very thin, and they may not be able to keep up.
To ensure quality into the future, make sure you can answer “yes” to these questions:
Do you have commitment from at least one person in each geography that they will regularly update their local content?
Do you have buy-in from local leadership teams so those content editors can keep up with the work? When there’s turnover, will the leadership teams replace the editors and ensure a smooth transition?
You are definitely not alone if local offices don’t want to participate. They may not understand the value in promoting their own local content and see it as busy work from corporate. Executive sponsorship helps here. It also helps to talk to field staff and explain how their contributions will add value not just for the company, but also for their local office.
If just a few locations are holding out, you can usually fill in the gaps with generic content that works across geographies. This approach allows for localization where it’s feasible, while eliminating voids where local content is not possible. You may also identify an automated solution to fill in some of the gaps.
And if you’re still left with a lot of holes, it may be time to rethink your localization strategy.
With these actions – defining geographies, deciding what spaces need local content, designing to accommodate that content, identifying content sources, and ensuring regular updates – you’ll avoid some of the most common snags in website localization.