Website Language Support: What’s the Magic Number?

Fifteen years ago, few websites supported 10 languages. In fact, it was common to believe that your website was “global” at five or six languages. This was understandable, given the simple fact that most Internet users at the time were native-English speakers.

My, how times have changed.

Today, fewer than 20% of the roughly 3 billion Internet users are native-English speakers. And this percentage will only decrease as the next billion Internet users come online over the next several years.

So how many languages should your website feature to be competitive globally? To answer this, it’s important to consider your global website strategy. But first you must understand how many languages the leading global brands support.

Learn from the Language Leaders

Since 2003, I have tracked the languages supported by more than a hundred websites across more than fifteen industry verticals. To ensure that these websites reflect the leading global brands, I include more than 70% of the Interbrand best global brands. As shown here, the average number of languages (excluding US English) has more than doubled since 2005, from 12 languages to 28.

average number of languages_chart

Source: The 2014 Web Globalization Report Card

Who are these language leaders, exactly? It’s not just Google and Facebook that have invested heavily in languages over the years.

Here is a selected list of companies that lead in languages (US English excluded):

  • Coca-Cola – 43 languages
  • Avon – 42
  • BMW – 42
  • – 41
  • 3M – 40
  • Nestlé – 40
  • American Express – 40

Developing a Successful Language Strategy

Just because Coca-Cola supports 43 languages doesn’t mean that your website should do the same. Amazon, for example, supports a mere 9 languages (not counting English). And though I do believe Amazon should be investing more heavily in web globalization (particularly in light of recent developments at Apple and Google), the fact is that every company needs to develop its own unique language strategy.

Factors that companies typically rely upon to help develop language strategies include:

  • Country/market expansion goals. Companies rely on a host of indicators (GDP, demographics, political climate, competition) to determine if and when they should focus on market penetration and expand into new markets. And when a new market is planned, the language(s) spoken within that market should be supported. This is an essential element of any international market penetration strategy.
  • Internet users by language. Because languages are not restricted by borders, sometimes companies take a language-based approach to going global. For example, supporting a Latin American flavor of Spanish could generate significant new website visitors from not only across much of Latin America but also the United States. Spanish is often the first language I recommend that companies add when they have just begun website globalization.
  • Languages supported by competitors. Copying the language strategy of a competitor is a simple way to prioritize languages, but it might also leave you blind to market opportunities your competitor has overlooked. Also, if you don’t have a plan for determining “next” languages, you’ll be left playing catch-up with your competitors.
chart - internet users by language

Sources: Internet World Stats, International Telecommunications Union, Country Registries

Language is ultimately a means to an end. When the Internet was largely the domain of the United States and Western Europe, a company could succeed with five or ten languages. But today the Internet is populated by three billion people, most of whom do not speak English as a native language.

If you want to be sure that you’re not only competing globally but actually leading globally, one thing is certain—you need to support languages.

And lots of them.