Writing for a global audience

September 1, 2012
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If you write a web page and put it up on the World Wide Web, then you have instantly created a globally accessible page. But just because a global audience can get to it, doesn’t mean that your page will be understandable around the world, and I’m not talking about just the language. If you make these mistakes, your English-language website might be difficult to understand by an English speaker in another country.

Don’t Assume Your Readers Understand that the Topic of the Page is Regional — Spell it Out for Them

If your page is about a regionally specific topic, then make sure you indicate that. Preferably right in the title of the page. Put the region in the keywords and page description as well. This will insure that someone in London, England looking for information on dog kennels won’t get frustrated by a kennel website that only caters to dog owners in South Africa.

Remember too, that even if your topic is regional, it has value to global viewers. What if someone from Germany is visiting your home town, and needs a dog kennel there? You also might want to expand your site to give more generic information that would appeal to a more global audience.

Watch Your Language on the Web — Avoid Slang Where Possible

Right now, most of the pages on the web are in English, but just because you’re writing your page in English in Australia, doesn’t mean that a Canadian would understand it or find it useful. Make sure that you avoid slang on your site, as that is the most non-translatable element of a page. And slang can be regional as well. For example, in some parts of the United States, we say “soda” to mean any generic fizzy drink, in others we say “pop”, and in still others we say “coke” (yes, in some parts of the United States, you can ask for a coke and they will ask you if you want 7-Up or Pepsi).

Prices are specific to your country. But you shouldn’t assume that every reader will know that you’re an Australian website when you say something costs $5.99. And depending upon the exchange rate to their currency, they may be pleased or upset at what they are billed. When you list a price, indicate what currency you’re using. And if you sell to a lot of different countries, it helps to have conversions listed, even if they are only approximations.

Measurements are another thing that seem like they should be global, but they aren’t. People in the US don’t understand the metric system and people outside the US don’t understand pounds and inches. And if you’re using an even more esoteric term (for instance, do you know how much one stone weighs?) you should be sure to define that in more standardized terms as well. When you list sizes or measurements, it helps if you list conversions, or link to a conversion website.

If you are going to translate your site, it works best if you hire a professional translator. While there are translation programs on the web, many of them can result in very humorous results at best. If you can’t hire a translator, then you shouldn’t put up the page in that language. Instead, link to online translators to allow your readers to do the translation. Your site will look more professional if the language it’s written in is correct.

General Tips for International Websites

  • Job listings
    These are almost always region and country specific. Be sure to list where the job is located and where the applicant will need to live to take the job. It also helps to include the date the listing was posted.
  • Currency
    Make sure that all prices have the currency listed. If you expect to sell to multiple countries, indicate whether you will accept other currencies, and it also helps to point to a currency exchange site.
  • Shipping
    If you can only ship within your country, make that very clear. It can be very disappointing for a customer to find exactly what he is looking for, only to find that it can only be shipped inside the U.K. (and he lives in Australia).
  • Events
    Online events are, of course, global, but offline events should have the place, including country, listed. Never assume that your readers will know that San Jose is in California in the United States — what about San Jose, Costa Rica?
  • Measurements
    In the U.S. measurements like pound and mile are common. In Australia, you might hear terms like stone or meter, and in Uzbekistan kilo or kilometer. It helps if you include conversions, and if you don’t know the actual conversion, link to a conversion site. This includes measurements for recipes, distances, and temperature.
  • Contests
    There are many rules for contests around the world. Make sure that your site either follows them, or specifies the countries where the contest is valid.

Things to Avoid When Writing for a Global Audience

  • Don’t make assumptions
    Never assume you know where your reader is coming from, unless you have done extensive survey work, it’s hard to say. Even if your readers aren’t coming in on .jp domains, doesn’t mean they aren’t located in Japan, they may be on IP addresses that don’t resolve to domains, or their ISP is global and has a .com or .net domain.
  • Avoid generic terms such as:
    • foreign/domestic/local — what’s foreign to you may be local to your reader
    • international — many people use this term to imply “any country other than mine,” but what it really means is “all countries”
    • regional designations — “east coast” means something completely different to someone in Moscow, Russia than to someone in Moscow, Idaho, US.
    • cities without indicating state and/or country — there is at least one London in the United States, as well as in England, and I used to live 20 minutes from Brisbane, but not in Queensland, Australia.
    • slang and dialect — words that are not found in a good dictionary should be avoided, as they won’t be easily translatable.
  • Poor translations are much worse than no translation at all
    As I mentioned above, poor translations can really hurt a website. Many people will forgive a site for not being in their native language, and will be willing to go to a translation site if they need the information, but if your translation is bad, they won’t trust you or your site as providing a quality product. Make sure that whatever language your site is in is grammatically correct, and free of spelling errors.

(via About.com )

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