In some respects the business world has never been smaller. The world wide web, as its name implies, puts the whole world a mere mouse-click away but, while anyone with an internet connection can theoretically access your own little corner of Cyberspace, in reality it takes a little more effort to fully exploit the opportunities offered by the ‘net.

It’s tempting to think that a monolingual approach will suffice when it comes to your online presence, especially if your native language happens to be English. Widely regarded as the lingua franca or ‘common language’ of the business world, English is also the most commonly used language online, according Internet World Stats.

Look closer at those statistics, however, and you’ll find that, while it is the single most commonly used language, it still only represents just over a quarter of all internet usage.

Additionally, the growth in English usage online stands at just over 281% over the past decade – far less than Spanish (743%), Chinese (1,277%), Russian (1,826%) or Arabic (showing a massive growth of 2,501% over the same period).

There are many social, economic and technological factors that may affect the incidence of internet usage within certain territories but, should these trends continue, the proportion of English speaking internet users will naturally fall further. With internet penetration standing at 33% in Chinese and 37% in Spanish speaking markets (as opposed to 42% in English) there is also still a lot of scope for this potential growth in foreign language markets to continue.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many English speakers use English only as a second language. While such people might well be able to understand an English-only website, studies have shown that multilingual internet users put far more trust in sites written in their native language, especially when it comes to making a purchase online. 85% of all consumers report that they would require information in their own native language before making a purchase.

Clearly, a monolingual approach to online marketing would severely limit both the inroads you are able to make into foreign language markets and the conversion rates (that is, the proportion of visitors who also go on to make a purchase) within those markets.

Once you’ve decided to take the plunge with a localised or internationalised website (localisation is the adaptation of an existing website to match the culture and language of a particular market. whereas internationalisation is the process of designing a site able to operate in and appeal to different markets from the start), you should notice benefits in your search engine marketing (SEM) results.

The simple reason for this is that, with English being the most widely used language online, there is less competition for rankings in any other single language.

A large part of search engine optimisation (SEO) revolves around identifying popular keywords. As the most commonly used keywords – basically the terms web users type into a search engine – are also the ones most likely to be used by competitors, there’s always a balance to be struck between popular, broad ‘short tail’ keywords and more specific ‘long tail’ keywords. When working in foreign languages online, there will be less competition on both types, making well researched keywords more likely to be successful.

Similarly, fewer inbound links are required in order to boost rankings and, with less competition, ads on local versions of global brand search engines such as Google and Yahoo and on local competitors such as Yandex and Seznam (the market leaders in Russia and the Czech Republic respectively) are likely to cost less.

The importance of successful SEM can’t be overstated. The top Google ranked site for any given search claims 35% of traffic, which is almost as much as the next four slots combined. As it is easier to achieve high rankings for a foreign language site than one in English, this translates as a higher return on investment in foreign language SEM.

The foreign language internet is an often neglected resource but it offers great opportunities for almost any business and these opportunities look set to grow in the foreseeable future.

About the author

Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, one of the world’s fastest growing translation companies. Launched in the UK in 2001, Lingo24 now spans three continents and has clients in more than sixty countries. Lingo24 has translated for businesses in every industry sector. Follow Christian (@l24ca) and Lingo24 (@Lingo24) on Twitter.

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