Best Practices for Asian Language Site Localization

So the boss says it’s time to launch the company’s website for Asia. If you have localized your site before, adding new languages may not sound like a big deal. After all, how much harder can it be to translate into Vietnamese than Spanish? Is Thai really that different from French? But Asia is not Europe—the continent is a radically different market, each country rich with its own regional cultures and languages. As a result, your site may need a different design, brand-new elements, or country-specific SEO. Fortunately, not everything has to be redone. There are some localization best practices that hold from language to language—you just have to approach them with that special Asian twist.

Identify What Can and Cannot Change

Start by identifying which parts of your existing site implement the core brand. From logos to slogans to the company name, every company has required branding content that needs to be uniform from country to country. No matter where in the world you are, these elements mean you: Think Coca-Cola’s ribbon and Nike’s swoosh. As other parts of their branding change, these corporations keep some things the same. For your site, branding elements like these should be part of your global template. Templates ensure brand consistency across all languages, but they also save you time. By marking these elements as non-translatables, you are able to better direct the linguists working on your site toward the parts that do need conversion. Design templates also give your localization team a pre-set visual presentation of what the user interface should look like after translation.

Take care, though, not to be too rigid. With Asian languages specifically, design may need to change because of how users in Asia read. In English, we start reading words from the left, then move our eyes right. But other languages (like Indian languages Urdu, Pashto, and Punjabi) are read from right to left. And the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages can be read from right to left, left to right, or top to bottom depending on subject and author. Many Asian languages use characters to convey the meaning of a word instead of forming that word out of letters. These characters are full of small and delicate marks; without even one of these marks, the meaning changes. This means font size may need to change so users can see the character in better detail. It also means that after translation, the length of your strings will likely decrease by around 10%.

Buttons may also need redesign, so take care not to hardcode copy into images or icons. Translation management systems (TMS) are very advanced, but even the best is not able to extract hardcoded text. Translators must manually extract copy, translate it outside of your TMS, then rebuild the icon from scratch in the new language. This drives up time, cost, and room for error, making even simple things like “buy now” buttons a headache. Icons should also be adaptable by direction and font.

Regarding the copy itself, make sure your site’s message is culturally strong, acceptable, and inoffensive. Language that is completely acceptable in one market or language may not resonate in another. Stick to those branding elements that should universally be the same, yes, but also consider rewriting copy that feels very US-centric. Keep copy simple, using the same terminology across all pages for clarity. And watch your tone! American consumer brands, especially, tend to use a lot of humor and often address audiences in a very personal way. In Asian markets, though, this same approach can be completely inappropriate. Skew more toward the formal side.

Translate Images Too

Stay away from pictures of hands, animals, or religious symbols of any kind: Religion is a deeply personal issue, regardless of country. Elephants, cows, snakes, and other animals are considered sacred in India, and Chinese people generally do not shake hands. They also consider it rude to point, and keep hand gestures to a minimum as they, too, are considered offensive. People and places should also look like they are actually located in the target country you are translating for. Give any icons or symbols on your site a once-over to make sure they are culturally appropriate. Even a globe can be problematic if it is turned to show the wrong part of the world.

Determine What Gets Translated When

Now that the way you write and depict information is taken care of, think about which content to translate. Do you have a strategy determining priority? Not all content will apply to your new audience. Asian-targeted websites do not need copies of US-required terms and conditions of use or the same GDPR notification that appears on your European-language sites. Identify which pages need localization then compile a rollout plan outlining what gets translated during phase one, phase two, and so on.

When translation provider Lionbridge localized its own website across ten languages, including Korean, Japanese, and Simplified and Traditional Chinese, the company did not just look at site elements; designers thought about which content would resonate with Asian consumers from a marketing standpoint as well. If your site had never existed in English and was being created in Japanese or Indonesian or Thai from scratch, what information would you include? This could be blogs, knowledge articles, brochure downloads, multilingual chatbots, or maybe a country-specific frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. Make the content that resonates most top priority.

Also make a place in your plan for continuing needs. Once the site itself is localized, how will you handle updated strings, new blogs, or user feedback in a website forum? Can in-country staff translate product reviews? How will you get smaller changes out of your content management system (CMS) and to the translator? Think about how to prioritize new copy and outline an early continuity plan with your localization provider for these ongoing needs. Defining that process now will save time and money later.

Get the Right Language in Front of the Right Users

Once the content is ready, the site itself has to offer an instinctive way to get the localized version in front of users who actually speak that language. In the past, brands have used global gateways or IP redirect detection. But best practices now skew away from these: Global gateways force the user to choose where they want to go, instead of being automatically directed. IP detection also locks the user into a language. If their native language does not match the language your site geotracks for that region (say they are from Japan, but on vacation in Korea), there is little the user can do to fix it. Language lists are one alternative, but these can be problematic for SEO and—once the list gets long—usability. Flags can also be a bit of an issue, especially for Chinese speakers in non-mainland countries like Taiwan or Tibet. According to China, these countries belong to them, but ask the people who live there and they will give a very different answer. They consider their nations sovereign and would be highly insulted if your site required that they click on a Chinese flag. And Chinese users would be insulted to see those countries’ flags on your site. Consider embedding an “hreflang” tag instead. This code will tell your site which language the user prefers, based on viewing history.

The “hreflang” tag also helps with tactical SEO because the information this tag retrieves gives your company user search insights. You can then use this information to optimize the site and amplify content, working with your marketing teams to drive backlinks, which make search engines see your site as an authority and in turn rank it higher.

Adjust for International SEO

When it comes to SEO, your site is not just competing against known, US-based competitors, but against all other content currently on the web in that language. Yes, this includes domestic companies and fellow exporters, but also means news outlets, bloggers, and any other online source battling for higher rank. This competitive landscape gets bigger with every new language you add. In order to win, you have to know who you are competing against. Where does your website rank in Asian countries now? Even if your current pages are just in English, that does not mean they do not have a ranking. Words are often shared between languages (“taxi,” for example, tends to be universal), so depending on your business, certain search phrases could be the same.

Take a look at web domain structure next. Site visitors and search engines use URLs to understand content location and relevance. URLs also index content. Ten years ago, country-specific domains gave sites an SEO power boost: Sites with a .ko domain ranked higher in Korean-based searches, for example, than a .com or other country extensions. But this is no longer the case. Search engines now look for country-specific sites—not domains. For SEO, your URL just has to make the site’s target language and country clear anywhere inside the domain architecture. So instead of giving each localized site its own domain, best practice is to use one generic top-level URL, then to place the language or country code behind it as a subfolder. Still buy the .ko, .jp (for Japan), .cn (for China), and other country domains because this keeps competitors from snapping them up, but redirect them to the main .com. This also makes site management easier for you as it is easier in most CMS to add a language code after the .com than it is to manage what are essentially two separate sites, each with its own domain.

Make Changes for Usability

Once you have decided on a URL structure, turn to internet speed. Bandwidth varies in Asian countries just as within the United States. This of course affects usability (in low bandwidth countries, make sure your site is quick to load), but it also matters for SEO. Google, Yahoo!, Chinese search engine Baidu, and Russian-based Yandex Search all include speed in their algorithms. Localized sites should accommodate not just the culture and language of the new country, but connection speeds as well. Take the lowest mobile load speed in your new market, then build for that.

Targeting the right device is equally critical. Sites originally designed for desktop may only be viewed on mobile devices in India, for example, which is the world’s second-largest smartphone market. Which device is preferred in the country you are localizing for? Is the market mobile-first or even mobile-only? How your audience accesses content changes the way they view it. Understanding the way people interact with your site has a direct impact on user experience.

Bring It All Together

Whether it is these techniques or others, by implementing best practice localization processes, your multilingual site can become efficient, sustainable, and—perhaps most importantly—repeatable. This gives you the scalability you need to succeed across all languages, no matter which continent they are spoken on. When it comes to localization, the work is never truly finished: Continue to review, iterate, and improve as you go, discovering that one single set of best practices that will make it easy to have multiple localized designs.

Bell, T. (2020). Best Practices for Asian Language Site Localization. User Experience Magazine, ().
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