Tips for Cross-Cultural Web Design

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The advent of internet marketing has made it easier than ever before for businesses, organisations and individuals to reach out and make connections across geographical borders. Anyone with access to the net can also theoretically access your website but in practise they’re unlikely to do so without a little effort on your part. Miles might not mean much to a modem but linguistic and cultural barriers remain.

English was the original language of the internet and, as in the business world, English is still to some extent the lingua franca or common language online. In 2010 English was the single most commonly used language online but it still represented only around a quarter of total Internet usage. With various studies also showing that multilingual internet users place more trust in websites written in their own native language, it’s clear that a multilingual, cross cultural approach is essential for anyone wishing to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the net.

Choose Localisation by Language or Country

The first decision you have to make is whether to target markets by language or by country. Some languages span more than one country and it is certainly both easier and cheaper to make a single site covering every territory with a common language than a dedicated localised site for each country. It should be remembered, however, that language and cultural nuances can vary from one region to the next. The Spanish spoken in Spain is different to that of Latin America, just as the French spoken in France is different from that used in Canada, Belgium or Switzerland.

Targeting by country will help ensure your content is pertinent and will allow the use of specific cultural references and even in-jokes that should otherwise be avoided.

Country Code Top Level Domains

As search engine algorithms also take location into account, targeting by country will allow you to boost your SEO by using separate country code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs). Investing in a ccTLD (such as for Spain or for France) will boost your rankings in local search engine results and local users will place more trust in a perceived ‘in-country’ site.

Subdomains and Subfolders

Even if you decide not to go for separate ccTLDs you should organise localised content in separate subdomains or subdirectories. You can then use Google’s Geographic Target tool to set geographic targets for each subdomain and subdirectory, which will also give a certain boost to rankings on Google’s local searches.

Use CSS and Unicode

Using the right tools during the design process can save a lot of time in the long run. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allow the content to be kept separate from the design, meaning that content can be adapted for different markets without having to restart each page from scratch. The direction of text can also be easily switched for written languages such as Arabic, that read from right to left, by adding the dir="rtl" attribute to the necessary areas.

Unicode UTF-8 is an ideal character-encoding tool. It’s compatible with more than 90 written languages, meaning non-Latin scripts such as Japanese and Arabic can be easily catered for as well as non-standard Latin characters such those found in the Danish and Norwegian alphabet.

Take Cultural Considerations into Account

Anthropologist and cross cultural researcher Edward T. Hall developed a concept of high and low context cultures. High context cultures, including China, Japan and Arab countries, have a tendency to draw information from the cultural assumptions of a situation, whereas low context cultures (the USA, Scandinavia, Germanic speaking countries) prefer information to be set out clearly and explicitly.

High Context Cultures
Arab Countries
North America
Scandinavian Countries
German-speaking Countries

Low Context Cultures
Source: Hall, E. and M. Hall (1990)
Understanding Cultural Differences

In terms of website design, this could mean that a highly visual site with intuitive navigation may be better for high context cultures, while low context cultures might appreciate a more rigidly structured site with clearly set out factual information.

Choosing the Right Colours

Think twice before choosing the most appropriate colour for your website. From menus and background to banners, logos and smaller graphical elements, blue and grey are the safest and most common colours used in web design. Livelier colours such as red, orange and purple may have various inappropriate meanings in different cultures, varying from positive connotations such as love and good luck, to bleaker meanings such as death and misfortune.

Don’t Skimp on Translation

The easiest way to translate your content is to add a widget for translation engines such as Google Translate, Babelfish or Microsoft’s Windows Live Translator to your site. Machine translation can be effective but it can also be prone to contextual and cultural errors. Enlisting native speaking translators will help minimise factual errors and will also help preserve the context and nuances of your copy.

There are many things to consider when it comes to cross cultural web design, and localising your websites may seem like a daunting task. The potential benefits are huge however, and effective localisation can open up huge potential new markets with a little forward thinking.

About the author

Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, one of the world’s fastest growing translation agencies. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over sixty million words for businesses in every industry sector. Follow Christian (@l24ca) and Lingo24 (@Lingo24) on Twitter.

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