Prelaunch planning is key for multilingual Web strategy

Multilingual Web strategy should align technology and expertise to meet business objectives. Mapping out needs and capacity is a good place to start.

As companies go global, so should their digital experiences. Establishing a global corporate persona means having a multilingual Web and mobile presence as well.

But the globalization of digital experiences is a double-edged sword. While it provides an opportunity to reach a broader audience, it also requires a new approach to meet that audience on its own turf. This isn't just about translating websites into new languages, though gearing Web content management systems for multiple languages can be part of the challenge. It's also about adapting content to different cultures, which requires a sensitive ear to humor, cultural norms and more. Site localization is key to hitting the right tone with new audiences.

In an era where content is king, search engine optimization (SEO) is critical to help target audiences find what they're looking for. SEO requires identifying and incorporating keywords that make content searchable. It may also require some adjustment from your original content, translation and/or localization efforts.

Adapting an English-only site for new languages is a major undertaking, so it's a good idea to develop a clear strategy beforehand. While each business equation is unique, there are some common considerations for delivering multilingual digital experiences on multiple devices.

Clarify business objectives

Start by clarifying the business objectives. Notice the role of language for presenting and powering digital experiences and consider how those factors can help determine the extent of multilingual efforts. Here are a couple examples of how that could play out:

  • Suppose you maintain a website for adventure travel in Latin America and want to expand your market by appealing to native Spanish-speakers throughout the U.S. You need to create another site for this market, one that works well on PCs and mobile devices alike.
  • Perhaps your firm relies on the Web to support application development tools in North America, but wants to start attracting developers in Eastern Europe and Korea. Building local language communities is a key aspect of supporting developers in new geographies. Beyond translating product support information, augmenting local language searching and social networking capabilities is going to be important.

Translating content from English into other languages is a crucial first step, but you may want to go further. Is the goal to simply replicate English-language experiences, or do you need to tailor messages and experiences to match regional and cultural preferences? The latter may well turn out to be the best course of action, given that words, imagery and even colors can convey widely divergent messages to different cultures.

In any event, map out the number of languages you plan to support, and determine whether you are targeting just a few multilingual experiences or preparing for a continuously growing list. Be sure to take multichannel delivery into account -- your target audiences are going to be using different kinds of devices.

Finally, assess your in-house capabilities for producing and maintaining content in multiple languages. If you are launching a major initiative, consider working with a language service provider, experts who can provide advice during the planning and implementation phases.

Assess multilingual readiness

Once you have determined business objectives, take stock of the investments that currently support your English-language experiences. In practice, this will likely require a content inventory and an evaluation of current content technologies:

Content inventory. Take a comprehensive inventory of content assets. Identify the range of topics and content types, such as data-driven displays, text for webpages, PDF-formatted documents, infographics and the like. Make sure to assess the volume -- the number of items and the words or pages of content. These factors become the baseline for your multilingual efforts.

Subject matter and length are also important. Different kinds of resources and editorial processes are required to translate personal blogs, news articles and lengthy technical reports. Non-text assets -- including photos, illustrations and Rich media (video and audio) clips -- are part of today's digital experiences. Account for these content types as well. Determine how language-specific elements (such as titles and labels) are incorporated into the assets.

Identify existing processes for content development and production. Describe your editorial workflows wherever possible.

Content technologies. Behind every website are tools for managing and publishing content, which support one or more kinds of digital experiences. As part of your multilingual readiness, catalog the capabilities of your current content technologies.

Two factors are particularly important: the granularity of your content and your ability to manage the metadata associated with your content. Wherever possible, manage content as discrete and identifiable "chunks," rather than as continuous "pages." Also, investigate how you use metadata to manage customer scenarios. For instance, identify how you are tagging English-language content for SEO. Determine the gap between these capabilities and what you would need to achieve your multilingual Web objectives.

Localization planning and implementation

With the existing conditions catalogued, you can begin to develop localization plans by tackling the following question: What do you need to do to make your digital experiences useful, acceptable and legal in one or more language-specific markets? Here are some of the factors to consider when drawing up that strategy, both for text and digital experiences:

Human-readable text. Words and phrases are an integral part of any digital experience. The first challenge is determining how best to translate English-language text into target languages.

The results of your content inventory can provide some valuable insight when weighing the options. The best answer may vary according to need, so consider the following questions:

  • Are you producing static information that needs to be translated only once and then never changes? Or are you publishing and updating a steady stream of content on a frequent basis?
  • Are you producing factual content, written with a simple syntax? Or is your content descriptive and analytic?

Now consider the technology. Computer-driven support can augment human expertise, so start by determining the role of machine translation in your project. Here are a couple of examples for how that can shake out:

  • Full screen Web browsers (such as Google Chrome on PCs) can detect language and provide automated translation of individual pages. Depending on your content and business objectives, this may be sufficient.
  • Google and other vendors offer automated machine translation as cloud-based services. Test and evaluate the results to ensure they meet the usability needs of your target audience. Consider whether the automated results can be enhanced through post-editing by specially training linguists to refine the computational processes. Machine translation is a good way to optimize publishing rapidly changing content streams.

But people still need to be involved, at minimum for evaluation and tuning. For many types of content, translators need to rewrite items in local languages. Often it is important to extend editorial processes to include translation tasks.

A translation management system (TMS) can optimize a translator's work. A TMS manages the workflow of translation tasks and builds up a translation memory of previously used words and phrases.

Successful translation requires iterative development and testing. Start by focusing on discrete parts of your English-language experience. Assess and enhance your results. Consider the time and effort required. Make adjustments to your editorial processes as needed.

Terms and tags for customer scenarios. Of course, digital experiences extend beyond the human-readable text and include customer scenarios -- the steps customers go through to perform specific tasks. It is important to identify where language-specific terms and tags affect these scenarios.

For example, consider search and findability. Tagging content by descriptive terms improves SEO results. Translating these terms is an important aspect of supporting multilingual search experiences.

Language-specific elements that drive experiences include taxonomies, product hierarchies, business rules and other types of metadata. Be sure to support steps for translating these metadata, relying on automated processes wherever possible. Third-generation Web content management (WCM) systems provide various kinds of capabilities for supporting multilingual metadata.

Developing localization expertise

As you add a multilingual dimension to digital experiences, localization becomes another aspect of WCM. It also creates the critical challenge of cost-effectively developing and managing content for multilingual customer scenarios.

In the past, translation was a largely manual activity that was performed by skilled linguists. But there is a growing volume of content and business pressures to automate translation tasks while also maintaining the quality of digital experiences. Both the professional skills and the technical capabilities for localizing digital experiences are in flux.

Final thoughts

There are multiple factors to consider when adopting a multilingual Web strategy, with no easy, one-size-fits-all answers. That's why it's important to map out business objectives, infrastructure and content needs before embarking on your multilingual endeavor.

Each business case is unique, but you'll likely find that successfully managing multilingual digital experiences blends human expertise with automated processes. Machine translation is showing a lot of promise but, depending on the content type, may still require human intervention and supervision. Also remember that Web localization could require more than just translation, so be sure to develop expertise that meets the business objectives for your multilingual customer scenarios.

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