How many languages does it take to change an online user?

Going global online means supplying content in a number of languages – but targeting your audience is the key, says Andy Atkins-Krger

Andy%20Atkins%20Kruger%20Web%20certainSo you’ve decided to take your Web offering global – is that truly global or just “around the globe”? And as you’re probably going to have to deal with the concept of language, how many languages do you need?

Both translation agencies and search marketers (or even combined companies like Web Certain) will say “We work in 40 languages” – in fact, 40 appears to be the number most often quoted. Why 40? What are the 40? And who is going to manage a website in 40 languages? Because language – and our application of multilingual search marketing – is central to our operations, it is important for us in the field to understand what matters.

For new “globalisers”, a Web market analysis is the best way to plan their launch. This examines which language zones have the greatest potential for success by assessing the feasibility of ranking, either organically or in paid search listings, the number of internet-connected uses and, finally, the actual market size for your product or service. In this case, the decision is simple – follow the market.

A recent Web market analysis for one client changed their roll-out plan from targeting Dutch to Italian. Their initial decision had been influenced by the number of Dutch enquiries they had received via their site, which was solely in English. But, as we know, the Dutch speak excellent English, and the analysis showed that this client would gain more additional enquiries from the Italian market.

Choosing Italian first is a little unusual, though the majority of enquiries received by my company are for French, Italian, German and Spanish. We even have an internal acronym for this – FIGS – as it is so common. But is it right? All are among the top 20 languages – but Italian is actually 18 on the list and you have to question if the tendency for so many enquiries for FIGS suggests that perhaps more thought could be applied to the choice.

Spanish is top of the list – beating even English – but German is tenth, out-ranking the remaining popular choices of French and Italian.

So how does a global marketer, whose brand already has a presence worldwide, decide how deep to go in terms of translating and promoting their website? The simplest way to do this is to look at league tables of language speakers. The top 21 languages reach over 3 billion people or about half the world population. The next 13 languages reach less than 600 million and so the pattern continues.

The Web changes the way languages are regarded in the world, because certain countries have higher internet connectivity and, therefore, the language – relatively speaking – moves further up the list. But the principle remains exactly the same – the more languages you aim to cover, the fewer people you will actually reach for the additional money invested – which means your return on investment is going to be less in those areas.

Adidas%20JapanThe rule here is one of diminishing returns. Let’s assume the cost of implementing, managing and promoting site content in each language is the same, then the cost of reaching people increases significantly the further down the list of languages you go, because you reach fewer and fewer people each time.

Within the context of search marketing, how many languages does Google – the world’s biggest search engine – provide? Hundreds? Well, from an automated perspective, in the natural results, a great many – but more telling is the number of languages offered by the AdWords programme. This is a very good indicator of the potential market for search marketers.

Google AdWords crosses 44 differently identified language zones – meaning that on our table above, Google is working its way into level 3 of languages. However, this is slightly misleading, as many languages are counted several times to enable different countries to be identified – such as Australia and then New Zealand. In fact, there are more like 40 languages on the list, many of which are very small languages – such as the 300,000 speakers of Icelandic.

So, to come back to the original question, a company which is working globally needs to be working from the top of the language list – and even before it arrives at 20 languages, it is a global player. To get to 40 languages you have to be working very hard indeed to make a return on effort. Numbers aren’t everything, targeting is – and that includes the language choice too. 

Andy Atkins-Krüger is managing director of Web Certain

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