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Its a World Wide Web Going International

It's a World Wide Web: Going International.

While many websites seem to assume that everyone lives in America and speaks English, most of the world, oddly enough, doesn't. If you want your website to be successful internationally, you need to make your content available in languages other than English.

Machine Translation.

A good first step in taking your website international is to offer links to translate it at a free machine translation service, such as Babelfish or Google’s Page Translator. These services take your text and attempt to translate it automatically as best as they can. However, translating text is a difficult problem, and even quite complicated grammatical rules tend to produce text that is only just understandable. It's usable in an emergency, but not exactly pleasant, and not something you want your visitors to be relying on – especially considering that it won't work on interactive pages, and that the number of languages available is quite limited.

Hiring Translators.

The next step up the ladder, then, is to consider hiring professional translators to translate your website's content and navigation elements into each language. While this is fine for larger companies, in many cases it's prohibitively expensive, at least if you do it for more than a few languages. If you are thinking of hiring a translator, the best approach is to first get your site translated into English (if it’s not already in English), and then get it translated into the languages spoken by your largest groups of visitors.

Volunteer Translators.

If you have a popular community website, or one with articles that lots of people find useful, then you might find that people even volunteer to translate your articles for free – you can give them a little encouragement by putting a message on the bottom of your pages asking for help in translation. Depending on what kind of website you run, you might be able to offer incentives like free products or free membership.

You have to bear in mind that translations you get from volunteers are unlikely to be professional quality, but they’ll at least be readable and approximately correct. Even a very bad human translator tends to do better than machine translation.

To make sure you’re not putting up any embarrassingly bad translations, you can give readers an opportunity to rate and give feedback on the translation, and remove it if it seems to be doing more harm than good. You will often find that visitors suggest corrections to the translation, making it get gradually better and better.

Deciding What to Send.

One of the biggest mistakes international websites make is asking users to choose for themselves which country they’re in or which language they want out of a list. Not only is this annoying for the user, but it’s insulting if their country or language isn’t there.

The worst thing about all this nonsense is that there’s absolutely no need for it. Web browsers send the computer’s country and language settings to your website in the HTTP headers, if you can be bothered to take account of them – a tiny amount of scripting on your part can save your visitors a lot of trouble.

Not only is this approach easier, but it’s also seamless – the user just goes to your website, and it’s in the language they wanted. You should still offer a choice, but make it a small option in the corner, not the entire front page.

Physical Products Around the World.

Of course, a web design article is no place to discuss the actual logistics of international shipping, but it is important to design your website to take account of it. If you’re planning to deliver physical products worldwide, you need to generalise your forms enough to take account of it.

Offer address lines that aren’t overly specific in what they ask for, and do little validation – no-one wants to be told that their address is ‘invalid’. Also, make sure you change shipping costs dynamically to take account of the country where the user is based, as this is more than likely the country where they’ll want things to be posted to.

You also need to take account of international payment, and make sure you can accept as many kinds of payment as possible, as preferences vary from country to country. Not every country is as reliant on credit cards as you might expect.


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