Why Globally-Minded Businesses Should Pay Attention to the Alibaba IPO

With an IPO just around the corner, the Alibaba Group will not focus on expanding overseas as much as adding to the company’s cash reserves so it can further dominate Chinese e-commerce. At least, that’s what Executive Chairman Jack Ma has been saying. But Alibaba’s raison d’être has always been to take business beyond borders – in a sense, globalization should be in their DNA, right? Let’s take a deeper look at the Alibaba IPO.

Internationally exposed leadership

The Alibaba Group is a Hangzhou, China-based group of e-commerce businesses including business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), and customer-to-customer (C2C) portals, an online payment service, and even a cloud computing service. Over the years, Alibaba has bolstered its leadership team by picking people who have gained expertise in their specific domains in the international arena. In a way, their outlook has always been global – something that has come naturally to a company that believes in the leveling powers of the internet.

Solutions with a local flavor

Alibaba’s Taobao, a C2C portal launched in defense of eBay’s China ambitions, aggressively chose strategies that were sure to penetrate the local market better, like featuring free and customer-centric listings. Such solutions only come from a very intimate knowledge of the target audience, knowledge that eBay severely lacked and which forced them to back out of the Chinese market.

Language-ready? Yes and no.

The mainstay of the Alibaba Group’s business – the websites Taobao, Tmall, and 1688 – are offered in Simplified Chinese only, which is exactly how it should be. AliExpress, which allows anyone, anywhere to order products directly from China, offers to translate website content and other text through Google Translate, recognizing the fact that its target audience is non-Chinese. But is a free machine translation option really the best translation solution for this global powerhouse? While human translation inarguably delivers the best quality, there are cases where specialized machine translation (MT) may be suitable. Depending on which way their experiment goes, Alibaba might have a lesson or two to learn from eBay on the use of MT in e-commerce. Alibaba Group’s official website, Alibaba.com, allows users to view the site in 13 languages, but the properties are hidden in the footer – the worst piece of real estate on a global website as it forces the user to scroll all the way down, when all they are looking for is a quick way to get information in their language.

It’s clear that Alibaba hasn’t had to think too much about globalization, given their dominance of their home market. Taking into consideration the extreme competitiveness of the Chinese e-commerce market, though, there’s no ruling out that one day they may have to expand geographically. And when that time comes, they will need to do much better in terms of website globalization.

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