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BLOG - How to create a website for an international audiance

10 Nov 2014

"Do you cross your fingers and hope that the Google translate button pops up alongside your URL?" 

Your traditional British pickles and chutneys are sitting on the sideboard, boxed up and ready to export. All you need to do now is to wait for some orders. But who’s clicking on your website? Perhaps your target audience are overseas, and don’t understand your site. Or maybe your servers are slow and they’re just getting a pickle, one pixel at a time. So how do you make your website navigable for a global audience?

Communication is key, and this means that potential customers should understand what it is you’re trying to sell. Do you cross your fingers and hope that the Google translate button pops up alongside your URL? Or do you hire someone to translate your entire website into several languages?

Florin Cornianu, CEO and co-founder of 123ContactForm, which enables users to build forms, create online surveys and quizzes, says: “It should be easy to switch to and from any language, with a drop-down menu on your homepage for example. Of course, you will need to perform search engine optimisation for each language.”

Frederik Vollert, CEO of PhraseApp, a translation tool, agrees: “From studies by Cisco Systems we know that 56% of the internet’s content is in English, but only 27% of its users come from English-speaking countries. Accessing the non-English speaking market allows you to potentially more than double audience and growth.”

As well as PhraseApp, other tools such as Dolphin Translate and Google Translate can be used to translate the whole webpage for users trying to navigate the site in a different language.

Martin Breach, founder and CEO of skia.com, a site that sells a training device for skiers, started off with an English language site first. “We followed our noses and contacts that we’d built, and decided to create a German site next. We were very lucky because one of our staff members was fluent in German and is an experienced skier, so could translate the nitty gritty ski vocab.” Breach says that it is very easy (and cheap) to get a generic translation done, however it can be slightly harder if you’re dealing with a specialist product.

Some companies decide against translating their website content – indeed, it should be a choice based on the type of business you have. James Cockcroft, director of IT consultancy Coeus Consulting, says: “Our target audience is largely senior executives and tends to share the common global business language of English, but it’s important to ensure that we recognise the global reach of our industry and potential client base.”

He adds: “We’ve tried to ensure that the content is easy to navigate and written in plain English, making it easier for potential non-Anglophone clients. We could’ve gone one step-further and tracked down the country where the user is coming from and offered some of the standard content in that language, but we wouldn’t translate the entire site as ultimately our professional services are provided in English.”

Once any language barriers have been surmounted, small businesses should also ensure that there are numerous ways to get in touch. There’s nothing worse than being excited about a product but being unable to find out more information because the phone call will cost a fortune. Provide an email address at the very least, and preferably a Twitter handle too. If you include a telephone number, make sure you have the full dial code so overseas customers can get through to you hassle-free.

Even with a swish multi-lingual website and great contact opportunities, it’s also important to consider carefully where to host your website. Barry Tabor, CEO and founder of BCS Corrugated, a company that provides machines for creating and gluing cardboard boxes, says: “Get SEO handled locally and ensure that you use a country specific domain to help optimise each site. Also, you should make sure that the company hosting the domain is based in the country.”

Deri Jones, CEO of Scivisum agrees: “Customers far away from the servers will get slower journey speed (a millisecond here and there can quickly add up to several seconds for a content-heavy web page), so they must consider the use of global content delivery network or cloud networks to get their content closer to their customers.”

In some key export markets like China, sites like Google may be blocked, so it’s worth thinking carefully before you put all your advertising eggs in one basket. Other social media sites like Facebook could be banned too – for example in mainland China – so again, considering different avenues of social media marketing and contact information on your website is crucial here.

Once you’ve set up the website and you’re operating an internationally-facing business, Deri Jones warns about the more practical issues such as time zones and international holidays: “When selling across borders you have to take time zones into consideration, for example, a Boxing Day sale in New Zealand must not start on Christmas Day in the UK.”

So with all this in mind, obstacles to setting up an international-facing business needn’t be insurmountable . Make a decision on how you’re going to organise your website’s language, check the time zones, and work out where to locate your servers. You’ll be picking up overseas clients in no time.

The Guardian Small Business Network