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Globalization and Localization

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

Let's clarify the terms globalization, localization, and internationalization before digging into the topic of creating a global presence while aware of regional needs. In this section, globalization is an organization that expands its Web site to reach markets outside of its native market. Although the British speak English and an American company's site is in English, the United Kingdom doesn't count as going beyond borders because it hasn't taken cultural and linguistic factors into play.

Localization is the adaptation of a Web site to a locale, which includes cultural, technical, and linguistic modifications. An example of a technical aspect is that people of the U.S. often abbreviate dates as MM/DD/YY, which translates to 02/10/04. Many European countries do it as DD/MM/YY, which is 10/02/04. Americans translate this date to be October 2, 2004 instead of February 10, 2004.

Internationalization is building a Web site to enable it to support multiple locales. Localization is the modification of a Web site for a specific locale. Think of internationalization as a template that can be adapted for the localized pages.

Have you been to a site that offers various language choices on its home page? How does it display the information? Take a look at http://www.ibm.com. What does it say? "Select country/region." Last time I checked, China, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan aren't using English as their primary language. The countries are also listed in English. Although persons in the aforementioned countries may recognize their country's name in English, they may not be able to translate, "Select country/region."

Some sites use a flag instead of words, which breaks the language barrier, but there's still a problem. If they display the flag from Mexico and no other country in which Spanish is the primary language, what are the people of Spain supposed to click on? They might both speak Spanish, but their cultural differences are great. 20 countries consider Spanish their official language.

When Chevy took its Nova car to the market in Mexico, it flopped. The maker didn't take Mexico's first language into consideration. "Nova" in Spanish literally translates to "Doesn't go" in English. Who would want to buy a car that doesn't go? Another example is Eskimo pies (vanilla ice cream with chocolate shell). It means Eskimo feet because pies is feet in Spanish. Humor aside, it's not funny when a business pours a lot of money to cross borders without doing its research and then flopping.

Another example without using language is color. EuroDisney made a booboo when it created a multimillion dollar advertising campaign with tons of purple. For the Catholics of Western Europe, purple signifies the crucifixion, and it's a color of mourning rather than a happy place as Disney sites are known to be. The result? EuroDisney flopped.

The Internet has erased the distance between countries and has opened opportunities for businesses and organizations to expand across borders. It takes more than translating a Web site into other languages to succeed in other markets. It's costly to take the extra step in understanding cultural differences, but the direction the Internet is going will force companies to take that step.