Embracing the Nation — Why Localizing by Country Works

While there are few by-products of imperialism that anyone would want to sing the praises of, one interesting result of the “age of colonialism” has been the spreading of various languages around the world.

Thanks to our exploring and exploiting forebears, English is now spoken around the world, French is spoken throughout northwest and central Africa, Spanish is spoken throughout Latin America, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, and so on and so forth.

Consequently, when you’re looking at the practicalities of exporting to foreign markets using foreign language websites, it can be tempting to try and save on web hosting and translation costs by targeting your websites by language rather than country. So rather than having separate sites for Spain, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, etc, you would only need one single site, in the Spanish language.

The only problem with this otherwise foolproof theory is that dialects of languages often vary dramatically — not only between the country of origin and its former colonies, but also between former colonies themselves.

As such, there’s no one dialect of Latin American Spanish that’s spoken throughout Central and South America, just as there’s no one consistent variant of French spoken among the 31 Francophone African countries.

Naturally, when you’re looking at markets where you’re planning to export, you won’t be looking at individually targeting every country in the world. For instance, Mexico might be a budding market for your product, but is it really worth investing in a localized website for Cuba?

The upshot, though, is that it really is worth investing in localized sites for those countries you do want to specifically target. For instance, my company recently conducted the localization of a major U.K. tourism industry website, creating 48 individual websites for 48 different countries, including three different sites for Spanish (Spain, Mexico, Argentina), four for French (France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland), three for German (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and a whopping 15 individual sites for English (U.K., U.S., Australia, Canada, Norway, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, etc).

As you can see, the client had identified where their potential customers were going to come from and had gone to the effort of creating individual sites for every possible country and language, even for those with more than one common tongue, like Switzerland and Canada.

Glancing over these various localized websites, it’s apparent that this was a smart move, as the differences in both dialect and information-requirement between countries with common languages are significant.

For instance, the localized sites for the U.S. and Canada have different front page sections to those for South Africa and Australia. While the sites for the antipodes focus on things to do, where to stay and top spots to visit, the front pages for the U.S. and Canada feature sections on how to get to Britain, how to get around, deals and offers, and Britain on a budget.

As you can see, they’ve worked out what the primary concerns are of each country’s tourists and designed their localized sites accordingly — and that’s not even mentioning the spelling and slang differences between the different English sites (or Spanish sites, or French sites, and so forth).

The lesson here is that if you’re really serious about competing with the locals in any given market, then you need to take your localization seriously, and that extends to the linguistic and cultural quirks of each individual market.

Besides, if you were from Argentina, let’s say, wouldn’t you feel that a website was more relevant to you if it had a .ar URL, and the text and images were specifically designed for your language and your needs?

Essentially, it just boils down to a question of cost vs. return. It may be more expensive initially to create 13 localized sites instead of three, but if you’re really serious about targeting each country properly and really making a go of it, then the initial development costs will eventually pale in comparison to the increase in your customer base — and turnover.

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