As we rush toward the Christmas retail season it’s shaping up to be a difficult end to an already challenging year for retailers. Although a few short weeks ago it looked like the UK was out of the worst effects from COVID, now the retail market faces unpredictable rolling regional lockdowns across the country. This is all compounded with a once in a generation recession. It all sounds like bad news, right? Well, there are positives out there for retailers. One is the significant increase in cross-border ecommerce – RetailX reported that international sales increased in the EU by 30% earlier in the year due to Covid-19, and that is sure to rise. But, the secret to cross-border ecommerce is not simply having a translation button on your site. The key is localisation.
Localisation is often associated with advertising and serving region specific social media messaging and digital advertising to consumers. Web and retail localisation, in a similar way, goes beyond merely translating your site. It means taking into account elements like native language SEO, providing images that are appropriate for the local market, and making sure your site is taking into account all the cultural nuances of the regions you’re trying to sell in.
This can seem like a daunting job that could involve significant time and budget. However, it’s 2020 and technology is here to help us, and significant gains can be made relatively quickly.
As I mentioned, translation is not the all of localisation, but it does play a big part in it. For bigger retailers the thought of getting professional translators in to translate hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages – and pages that are potentially updated fairly often – is a nice to have, but in this economy perhaps not a necessity. However, there are tech solutions out there to help out. Automatic or machine translation services can often plugin and not only translate, but also display the content of your site automatically, with significant savings compared to people powered translation.
What is important is to look for localisation and not only translation. Machine translation technologies that include providers like Google, Yandex Translate, and Microsoft Translator only overlay native languages once the visitor is on the site. However, good localisation technology will encompass that translation (and the editing of those translations) but also take care of the multilingual SEO.
Multilingual or international SEO is essentially just doing everything you already do for domestic level SEO, but for every language version of your site. Successful multilingual SEO involves translating the entirety of your site’s content, translating any metadata on your site, adding ‘hreflang’ tags that allow search engines to index your site in different languages at the same time, as well as having language specific subdomains/directories.
The challenge with automatic translation is accuracy. Although the technology has, and will continue to, improve, it’s not flawless. Professional translators will be far more accurate but take significantly longer to translate. Then you will need to add on the time it takes to apply the translations to the site. The most effective method is a combination of the two. A first run using machine translation, followed by a review by professional human translators can strike the required balance between cost, accuracy and speed.
In Germany they have a habit of creating compound words. Sometimes a phrase or concept in English manifests itself in single long words. An example would be ‘nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit’ which means ‘food intolerance’. Perhaps not the most common phrase to be found on a retail site, but what it shows is the potential hidden issues around design when automatically translating or localising a website.
Design implications are often overlooked. Languages not only differ in sound and syntax, but also in terms of the space words occupy in a given sentence. This is an area that designers and retailers need to pay attention to when it comes to incorporating your translated content into your site’s design. There are also a host of specific brand implications with localisation, particularly when it comes to custom fonts. Failure to anticipate these elements can result in things such as broken strings and overlapping text, which are far from ideal when you’re trying to entice new customers. Make sure your brand and design people are briefed early on in the process to ensure that any of these issues are flagged and solved as soon as they arise.
As previously mentioned, localisation is not just about translation and so, it’s also important to localise with an eye on cultural nuances. Cultural context can manifest itself in multiple ways.
Let’s take Christmas for example. Often in the UK we feel that Christmas traditions are universal. However, on the other side of the North Sea in the Netherlands, things are very different. Sintaklass is not too dissimilar to Santa Claus or St Nick, he dresses in red and with a big white beard, so far so good. But unlike the British tradition, Sintaklass arrives from Spain on a white horse. No sleighs and no Lapland. What’s more, Dutch children are more likely to find chocolate in their shoe on Christmas morning than a present in a stocking.
So, it’s prudent to consider any images or media on your website. If you’re using images of stockings hung over an open fire, or a sleigh travelling through the night sky, then the chances are that this won’t these images will not resonant in the same way with a customer from the Netherlands.
Website localisation can be a vital strategy in boosting international sales for retailers around the globe. It can seem like a daunting and difficult task, and although it will require some resources to be effective, it’s not as daunting a task as many people expect. Particularly if you can get it right first time. But even small forays into the field can have significant gains for many retailers and be a lifeline in a difficult time.
Augustin Prot is the CEO of Weglot