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Having just returned from a three-day intensive content strategy conference in Portland, Oregon — Confab Intensive — I was reviewing my notes, and one topic stuck out as a fascinating one for all types of marketers: global websites.

Val Swisher, @valswisher, CEO of Content Rules Inc., presented “Taking Your Content to Global Proportions.” Val offered a great overview of best practices for companies who are creating a website to serve audiences around the globe.

During a quick poll of the workshop attendees, most said their company offers four to eight different languages for their website users. One woman at my table said her company translates 73 languages! No matter where you are in your global content efforts, these best practices will help you create a positive experience for non-English-speaking users.

Why should I care?

Whether you’re an equipment manufacturer with customers and dealers throughout the world, or a nonprofit organization trying to expand your footprint, your website is likely one of the first places people are going to learn about you.

Does your site offer non-English speakers a good experience by translating what’s important about your company in their language? Does it show images of people who look like them? Does it offer thoughtful cultural nuances that let them know you understand them?

If you answered no to any, or all, of those questions, then it may be time to create a global content strategy plan for your website. Addressing your global users’ experience by following Val’s best practices (presented later in this post) can help your company:

  • Improve website quality in all languages — by paying attention to images, words and layout.
  • Save money localizing and translating content.
  • Get to market faster in all countries.
  • Protect your brand.
  • Maintain (or restore) your sanity.

Val offered external and internal best practices. External best practices have to do with how people see your website and content, and how they interact with it. “These are things you need to do to make sure you’re meeting their needs.” Internal best practices are what’s happening inside — what your user never sees, but that guides how your company creates and manages the site for global audiences.

External Best Practices

Val divided her external best practices into three user-friendly categories:

  1. Finding your global site
  2. Navigating within your global website
  3. Eliminating meaningless and offensive content

Finding your global site

Some companies make it very difficult for non-English speakers to find their global sites. Pick one of your favorite big consumer brands, like a soft drink company or major clothing manufacturer. Pretend you are living in Russia and want to read the website in Russian. How long does it take you to find the Russian pages?

Some companies have mastered their global websites, but many others have not. If it took more than 30 seconds for you to find the Russian pages, or to get frustrated and give up, then you clearly visited a site that has not mastered it.

There are three ways to help users find your global site (the pages in other languages):

  1. Splash global gateway
  2. Geolocation
  3. Global icon button

Some companies use a splash global gateway — a page appears when you enter the site that lists all the countries and languages offered. For a good example, visit

If you create a splash global gateway, Val advised segmenting the countries by region to make it easier to locate them. For instance, the Ikea site segments countries by Europe, North America, Asia Pacific and the Caribbean. Always include the country name written in the native language and alphabetize according to the native languages. Finally, remember that a country does not equal a specific language. “You can’t assume everyone in Canada wants English,” Val said. “You must offer English and French for Canadians.”

Another option for your website is geolocation — where the user’s browser has a conversation with the server to say, “This is where I am physically located right now. Find the country and language based on my location.” This is super-helpful to the user because the correct language is served up to them without having to search for it. But, Val said, geolocation can be difficult for travelers who don’t speak the native language of the country they’re in, and it can be kind of creepy if it’s taken to the extreme.

The other option is to offer the global icon button in the upper right corner of your site. Visitors know to click the globe to find a list of countries/languages. A good example of the global button is on

Whichever method you choose, Val said DON’T do the following:

  • Don’t send your users on a wild goose chase to find your global sites or pages.
  • Don’t make it confusing — if you show a country and language, deliver on that promise with pages in that language; too often, companies list countries where they do business but those pages are still written in English or mostly English.
  • Don’t move your global button — the button should stay in the same place on every page so users can return to the homepage quickly and easily.

Navigating within your global site

Now that your user has found his/her region-specific section of your website, what else do they need? “Make it easy for people to find what they need, in the language they need, on the device they want to use,” Val recommended. Think like a customer when you lay out your global navigation.

Don’t let creative preferences take over the page design — for instance, translating text from English to German often expands the amount of copy. Plan for it in the design — don’t just make the text smaller to save the creative vision. Asian cultures prefer chunks of text, instead of long flowing copy blocks, so consider creating a page layout that meets their needs.

Eliminate offensive content

What is recognizable and appropriate in the United States may not be elsewhere in the world. To be safe, avoid iconic U.S. images or symbols, and avoid showing any kind of hand gestures. A peace sign hand gesture in the U.S. may translate into something very offensive in another country.

“Images offer a difficult challenge,” Val said. There are tools to help your company discover more global images for your audiences, like Content Insight’s Content Analysis Tool (CAT). But her main advice was to think carefully about every image used for global content, and whenever possible, ask someone from the region to approve it.

Personas can also be helpful to educate your content teams about cultural sensitivities and nuances. Talk to your marketing and engineering teams in different countries to better understand the people in their markets. Working together, you can eliminate what is offensive, locate appropriate models for your photos, and include region-specific information and images.

Val offered up the Hofstede Center website — its goal is to offer high-quality education in the field of culture and management based on academic research and practical experience — for more information about understanding and discovering cultural sensitivities. I checked out the site and there’s some amazing information on it, like the cultural tools section.

Internal Best Practices for Global Sites
OK, your user has found the right section of your website; now what about the content you offer them? There are three methods to handle global content:

  1. Translation
  2. Localization
  3. Transcreation

With translation, the content stays the same, but is translated into a different language. “It’s the cheapest thing to do,” Val said. “Images and layouts don’t change, only the language of your text changes.” This poses an obvious problem — word-for-word translation can be confusing and out of context in other languages.

Most companies that have four languages or more on their website use localization — where the meaning of what you’re trying to say is translated. This is clearly more accurate than word-for-word translation. Images are often changed to fit local cultures, but there are minimal layout changes. The brand vocabulary stays the same and doesn’t change based on the region. “This is more expensive than translation and takes more time and knowledge,” Val said.

The final option is transcreation — where you create different content for different regions of the world. This is the most customized of all global content and is considered the new best practice for global websites. Usually the content is created in-country and everything on the page changes — the layout, the images, even the brand vocabulary is enhanced and expanded to fit that culture. “It’s expensive because each region has its own content process,” Val said, “but that’s nirvana for the user.”

Whichever method you choose, Val offered some best practices:

  • Reuse content whenever possible by identifying global concerns, challenges and preferences that bring your audiences together.
  • Don’t use colloquial English as your translation language; keep your English pages as simple and straightforward as possible to allow for easy translation; if you want to write more colloquially for U.S. audiences, treat those pages like you would any other country-specific page.
  • Don’t put text within your graphics; instead, overlay text on the graphic so it can be picked up by machine translators, like Google translation.
  • Choose consistency — unless there’s a compelling reason to do so, choose layouts that work for all your regions.
  • Don’t work by yourself — talk to the marketing people, the technical people, the creative team, and the sales team and draw on all your shared audience experience to create the best user experience possible.

Val is a smart lady, and her workshop covered only a small part of this topic, so if you want to keep on learning, check out her book, “Global Content Strategy: A Primer.” She also mentioned one of her favorite groups, Translators without Borders, which provides translation services for humanitarian nonprofits.