Culture and website localization

With the increase in computer ownership and daily use of the Internet, the Internet is quickly becoming the primary port of call for information, shopping, and services. Furthermore, those computer and Internet users are increasingly coming from non-English speaking countries. At the end of 2002, it was estimated that 32% of Internet users were not native English speakers. This figure is constantly increasing. In response, companies have quickly realized the benefits of website localization.

Website localization is the process of modifying an existing website to make it accessible, usable, and culturally appropriate for a target audience. Website localization is a multi-layered process that requires programming expertise and linguistic/cultural knowledge. If any are missing, chances are a localization project will run into problems.

In most cases, it is the lack of linguistic and cultural input that disappoints a website localization project. To give you an idea of ​​the impact that culture has on website localization, the following examples describe areas where a solid understanding of the target culture is necessary.

Language in website localization

Translating a website from English to another language is not as simple as it seems. There are numerous factors that need to be considered when translating website content. Are all words, phrases, sayings, and metaphors translated directly into the target language? Would it be wise to translate the phrase “every man for himself” into text describing a company or product if it is going to be read by a highly collectivist culture? Does your website content use humor, and if so, will the target culture appreciate or even understand it? Native alternatives should always be sought and used when localizing any website.

When translating into another language, carefully consider variants. If it’s going to be an Arabic website, is it aimed at Tunisians or Iraqis, Egyptians or Yemenis? If you are targeting all Arabic speakers, make sure your translator has used Modern Standard Arabic.

You have to analyze the style of the language and the target audience. If the audience is foreign business personnel, the vocabulary, grammar and punctuation should reflect this. If the audience is informal or youth-oriented, more relaxed language should be used. Just as we in the UK would identify the difference between a site using ‘posh English’ and ‘street English’, other cultures will have the same perceptions of the language. Using the wrong language for the wrong reader in your localization project will lead to a misunderstanding of the site or company.

It is essential to assess what information needs to be moved to the new site. Please do not assume that all information on the English site is transferred automatically. You have to evaluate the culture and society of destination. Is it a culture that relies on information-rich writing to fully understand a concept or product or is it a culture that relies more on images or one that needs little text to capture ideas and concepts? If your English site uses a lot of technical language, consider the best way to transfer these concepts without the use of language.

Images in website localization

The images carry many subtle cultural messages within them. These can say a lot about your company or product. Photos or images may have certain negative connotations that may repel viewers. This is now an area that is thankfully receiving attention in website localization.

For example, if a travel site in a country populated by Muslims uses images of scantily clad women in bikinis, disco dancing and drinking beer, they are unlikely to be very successful.
When including images of staff, it is advisable to adapt them to what the target audience will view positively. A picture of the Director behind a desk in an office will be fine for a society that respects seniority, but for an egalitarian society it is better to show the Director mingling with the staff.

It is through images that websites can engage with an audience or repel them.

Symbols in website localization

As with images, symbols can cause localization issues. Finger icons such as the OK sign or the V sign can mean different things to different cultures. Our western symbols don’t always mean the same thing abroad. An oft-cited example is the representation of the house in reference to a home page, or a mailbox. The use of animals in logos can cause embarrassment and more problems. For example, pigs are considered unclean in the Middle East and cows as holy in India.

Colors in website localization

The colors are also loaded with cultural meanings that must be analyzed in the localization of the website. Choosing the wrong color for your logo or background won’t always have disastrous consequences, but it’s always a good idea to avoid them. In China, red is auspicious. In Africa, certain colors represent different tribes.

Website localization navigation

Even the most taken for granted aspects of website design need to be properly analyzed for a successful localization project. In the West we assume that the way we present websites is the natural way it should be done. This is far from the truth.

A common issue experienced in localization is the effect on layout through translation. Foreign scripts can make your pages need more or less space depending on the target language in localization. Not all languages ​​are read from left to right. Arabic is from right to left and both Japanese and Chinese are from top to bottom.

Access to certain pages is also a factor that can be considered relevant. Highly hierarchical cultures may view a site positively if it is “members only” access, while an egalitarian culture may find it distasteful.

Website localization content

Examining your written content in any localization process is critical to its success. This is not only important for the proper transfer of things like dates, currencies, and units of measure, but also to present the correct image.

For example, will the site focus on a product or a company? Both bring with them certain considerations depending on the target culture. If a company promotes itself in a culture that respects seniority and hierarchy, readers will want to see information about senior members. Along with your titles and rank, they will also want to assess you through information about your professional qualifications, experience, and contacts. These areas in the UK can generally be avoided as in our culture it borders on complacency and boastfulness.


Culture affects everything we do, say, read, listen to and think, and even websites cannot escape the influence of culture.

The impact of culture on website localization is huge. The few examples above are literally the tip of the iceberg. The number of variables that must be taken into account requires the expertise of both a website designer and a cross-cultural communications consultant. Together, you can identify the issues that will impact the successful localization of a site.

At a time when the Internet is increasingly entering homes, it is crucial that companies involved in internationalizing their business consider website localization and ensure effective cross-cultural analysis is used.

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