Web Globalization Strategy in a Mobile World

In his recent presentation Mobile is Eating the World, tech pundit and investor Benedict Evans documented the stunning growth of smartphones globally.

Right now, we’re at roughly three billion Internet users around the world, with two billion of them being smartphone users.

Over the next five years, smartphones will account for the next billion Internet users. And, based on my estimates, fewer than 20% of these new Internet users will be native-English speakers.

In other words, if you want to reach the next billion Internet users in the years ahead, the web globalization strategy you use when you choose to translate websites must be partnered with your mobile strategy.

Welcome to the Post-PC World

In 2007, Steve Jobs famously remarked that we were entering a Post-PC era in which the sales of smartphones and tablets outpaces sales of personal computers.

In a post-PC world, we must expand our understanding of the to include not only a wide range of mobile devices but to also include mobile apps. And mobile apps have become, for a growing number of companies, the “front door” through which they interact with their customers. And though mobile apps often rely on the same underlying data as mobile websites, their unique ability to leverage the underlying operating system and smartphone features (camera, geolocation, phone) have made them hugely popular among users.

In just a few years, companies have gone from supporting a PC website and, maybe, supporting a mobile website that very few people ever used — to supporting a diverse range of websites and apps.

Consider Hotels.com, which supports the following:

  • A mobile app for smartphones
  • An website for smartphones
  • A website for the desktop

Where does web globalization fit into all of this?

Don’t Go Mobile without Thinking Global

In the past, web teams and mobile teams often worked apart from one another. And while web teams were focused on their web globalization strategy, mobile teams didn’t often share the same priorities (or budgets).

The result is that you will typically see companies that support vastly more languages via their PC websites than they do via their mobile apps or even mobile websites.

Given the current mobile trends, it would seem that companies should be investing more heavily in mobile website and app localization than in their desktop websites. Yet few companies have seized the opportunity.

In The 2014 Web Globalization Report Card, I studied both websites and apps from more than a hundred global companies. I’ve selected three companies to illustrate the language disparity between app and website.

chart showing difference in mobile and web translations

Source: 2014 Web Globalization Report Card

While the average number of languages supported by leading global websites is 28, mobile apps generally support fewer than 20 languages on average, often considerably fewer.

Fortunately, more and more companies have awakened to the importance of mobile development over the past 18 months. If your company is just getting started with mobile, here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Support language parity across desktops and mobile devices. Right now, very few companies maintain the same linguistic experience across PCs and mobile devices. Imagine the experience of a web user who reserves a hotel room on a website in his or her language and then opens the mobile app while on the road only to discover that the language is not supported.
  2. Don’t overlook global navigation. Just because mobile users have your mobile app doesn’t mean they know their language is supported. For mobile apps, align the app language with the operating system language. When the user starts up an application, it looks at the locale setting of the OS. If the device has a Spanish-language setting, the application will automatically load Spanish text strings if they’re available. Take advantage of this functionality with your app and save users from having to select their locale all over again.
  3. Keep it lightweight. Just because a web user has a broadband connection at home doesn’t mean that his or her iPad will have a broadband connection in, say, an airport. Despite the many promises of wireless carriers, wireless broadband is just not a reality for most people. It’s time for companies to put strict weight limits in place for their websites and apps to ensure that users on mobile devices have a positive experience. Speed was one of the main reasons Google became the dominant search provider. And speed still is very much a way to stand apart from your competition, not just in one country but in any country.

Companies that merge global requirements with their mobile requirements are going to be far better off in the long run. World readiness needs to be given the same level of urgency as mobile readiness.

About John Yunker

John Yunker, co-founder of Byte Level Research (www.bytelevel.com), consults with many of the world’s leading global companies, providing web globalization training and benchmark services. He has authored ten annual editions of The Web Globalization Report, an analysis of the world’s best global websites. He is author of The Art of the Global Gateway, The Savvy Client’s Guide to Translation Agencies, and Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.