You need to make your site usable by a worldwide audience.
Internationalization is not the same as localization. Internationalized web sites strive to meet a wide range of users through a single version of the site. Localized sites offer a complete (or nearly complete) translation of every page on the site into all the languages spoken by frequent visitors to the site.
Here are some steps you can take to improve your web site's utility with a wide range of users through internationalization:
Given that more than half the world's web surfers speak a non-English native language, international users likely make up a notable component of your web site's viewers.
A good web site statistics package should be able to give you some information about where your web site visitors live (see Recipe 9.9). After you've reviewed your site statistics, make a list of the top 10 or 15 countries from which you get hits to your site to guide your internationalization efforts.
Taking a global perspective is the key to successful internationalization. Perhaps you've seen the Australia-centric world maps with the South Pole at the top and most of the world in the bottom, northern half. A whimsical map is good for a laugh, but a web site operated with a narrow-minded view of who it's for will confuse visitors or turn them away.
For example, simple things like date notation mean different things to different people. In the United States, 6/1/2005 represents the first day of June, but much of the world would read it as January 6th. Whether it's a modification date on a web page or a timestamp in a list of articles or site postings, spell out the month in the date, either as "1 June 2005" or "June 1, 2005."
The same holds true with timezones; few of your non-U.S. site visitors will know what "noon ET" or "4 CDT" means. For live or real-time events such as online sales or webcasts, state the start time as two or three "local" times, such as "The webcast will begin at 9 p.m. on June 1st Austin time (3 a.m. the following day in London)."
On forms, inadequate character lengths, formatting requirements and blank field warnings can stymie non-U.S. respondents trying to join your mailing list or order one of your products. Although name, street address, and city are common to just about everyone's contact information, regional divisions, phone numbers, and postal code information varies widely.
You should offer a select menu of state/province listings for your primary (North American) audience, as well as a fill-in-the-blank field for others to enter their county, prefecture, or territory, as the case may be. Make sure you specify enough space in a text field for names and addresses. Many names and addressesparticularly German, Arabic, and Latin Americanare longer than their North American counterparts. A text input field can have attributes for both the amount of character space displayed in the form and the total number of characters that can be entered into the field, like this:
<input type=" text" name="address" size="30" maxlength="50" value="">
Also, be careful when using form validation schemes that expect 10-digit phone numbers and five-digit postal codes, as those bits of information may be longer or shorter in addresses outside North America. Use a select list for countries, too, that either defaults to the most frequently selected country or lists the most common choices at the top, rather than listing them alphabetically. If you do not ship to or do business with people in certain countries, make a note of it on the form.
Using icons can spell trouble for web sites geared toward a broad international audience. Because cultural interpretations can vary widely, avoid using icons that portray religious symbols, gestures, or sports analogies. Even the meaning of seemingly everyday objects such as mailboxes, shopping carts, stop lights, and telephones can get lost in translation. Best bet for icons: use them sparingly and with an adjacent text label when you do.
Translating your entire site into one or more languages can be costly and time-consuming to do and maintain. But offering multilingual versions of a few key pages such as shipping policies or an About pagecan be a hospitable addition. Be sure to see Recipe 4.2 for guidance on adding text to pages that's written in a language other than your site's main language.
Finally, take the time to check your work for the audiences you're trying to reach, either through site testing with a small group of users, or by enlisting the help of a usability consultant who can evaluate your site's effectiveness with a worldwide audience.
Recipe 4.2 will help you in displaying some of your pages in a foreign language.