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GUEST COMMENT Right-to-left language is the next frontier to conquer for truly global ecommerce brands

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Yoav Kutner is CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc

It’s no secret that to succeed in the world of ecommerce, you need to think beyond single geographies and learn to serve a global customer-base. Merchants pour resources into internationalising, building out storefronts that flexibly cater to customers based on the languages they speak, the currencies they use, and even the kinds of products or types of marketing that are most appropriate for their region.

Even as merchants seek to internationalise their ecommerce presence, however, some potentially lucrative growth opportunities are being neglected. Markets such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), for instance, remain significantly underserved by global ecommerce players, even as countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are seeing explosive ecommerce growth.

Why aren’t more Western brands leaping on these opportunities, and exploiting every single market opportunity available to them? It might sound a little silly, but one key barrier to potentially lucrative markets is the simple fact that in certain parts of the world, people use the Web in languages that flow from right to left, rather than from left to right. 

The language barrier

It’s easy to see why that’s a problem: if you build a website in English and want to convert it to French or German, you just need to translate the content. If you want to convert it for right-to-left (RTL) languages such as Arabic or Farsi, on the other hand, you need to flip design elements and fundamentally rearrange the layout of your website. That’s a complicated proposition, and many merchants don’t even try. 

That’s a problem, because language is a key part of any online experience, with over 56% of consumers saying that finding information in their own language is more important to them than price when it comes to making an online purchase. In fact, 42% of buyers never make any purchase in a language other than their own.

With English language websites reaching less than 25% of worldwide internet users, online retailers that fail to expand their linguistic horizons could miss out on potentially huge new markets. Even in areas where English is widely spoken, about 60% of consumers favour RTL web content, making RTL-capable Web design a must-have for truly global ecommerce brands.

Fortunately, a roadmap does exist for ecommerce brands in need of RTL optimisation. By taking steps now to accommodate speakers of RTL languages, online stores can future-proof their operations and access new – and fast-growing – markets.

A complex task

Building ecommerce support for RTL languages isn’t as simple as translating the content, mirroring the website, and making a few quick touch-ups. You’ll need attention to detail to create a portal that’s navigable, easy to understand, and visually appealing — and also respects the complexity and cultural significance of RTL languages. 

Above all, the key is to think strategically about the visual and functional preferences of RTL readers, while paying close attention to usability. Here are five rules to guide your RTL optimisation processes:

Maintain readability

Pay attention to visual differences: Arabic typefaces tend to be smaller than English typefaces, and may need to be enlarged. There may also be differences when it comes to fonts or text modifications: RTL languages tend to have fewer fonts, and may not use features such as italicisation or capitalisation.

Make mirroring work

Flipping, or mirroring, a site from LTR to RTL site can be tricky. Text should be aligned on the right for RTL language sites, but interface and layout elements don’t always need to change. Carefully evaluate your use of forms, pop-ups, and floated elements, too, as their position and flow might need to change.

Preserve some LTR elements

Keeping some LTR items can enhance usability and boost engagement. You’ll want to maintain certain numeric features, including dates and time, for example. Brand and product names can also typically remain unchanged, as can symbols such as keyboard or camera icons.

 Manage multilingual stores

Give thought to whether it makes sense for you to build a dedicated RTL storefront, or a single site with both RTL and LTR capabilities. If you’re building a multilingual site, invest in design and back-end capabilities to dynamically change elements while still providing a consistent user experience.

Beware of themes

Some themes promise to deliver instant RTL support, but the more complex your implementation, the less likely it is that a simple theme or plugin will deliver the support you need. Check your site carefully to ensure that complex features — such as headers or CSS elements — are being presented correctly.

Remember, visiting an ecommerce website is all about first impressions. Awkwardly placed items or misaligned text can end the relationship before it gets off the ground. That’s where platforms with native, out-of-the-box RTL capabilities offer an important advantage. Such platforms help brands create intuitive and customer-focused design in less time, and break into new markets faster.

Look beyond RTL

Of course, breaking into new markets isn’t just about making your text flow in the right direction. One of the biggest mistakes that ecommerce brands make, in fact, is assuming that just because they’ve implemented RTL features, they’ve done all they need to in order to win over a given geography’s consumers.

The reality is that there is incredible diversity across the various regions that speak RTL languages, and companies need to invest in tailoring everything from product information, to marketing campaigns, to pricing, to product line-up in order to truly serve the new markets they’re entering. It’s easy to see that a product image featuring a woman in a bikini might work well in Paris or London, but much less well in Riyadh or Dubai, for instance – so make sure your platform lets you serve up appropriate experiences for all your customers. 

Pay attention to the nuances of the markets you’re entering, too. Regions with less-established ecommerce sectors might not yet have robust same-day delivery infrastructure, for instance, while consumers might use mobile devices rather than laptop or desktop computers. The key is to remember that consumers in such regions are typically just as demanding and sophisticated as consumers elsewhere, so make sure you tailor your offerings appropriately. 

For truly global ecommerce brands, getting RTL design right is really just a starting point. The brands that succeed go further, and use every tool at their disposal to craft rich, culturally appropriate, and market-specific experiences for their customers — while also using smart technologies to drive efficient back-end operations across their entire network.

Yoav Kutner is the CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc, the creator of open-source ecommerce platform OroCommerce. Yoav previously co-founded and served as the CTO of Magento.

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