By John Yunger, Byte Level Research

For the past five years, I’ve conducted annual reviews of approximately 200 global websites. The process involves noting the languages used by each site, as well as global navigation strategies and local content.

The Web Globalization Report Card is the result of this work and this article presents a few key findings from the 2008 Report Card, which was recently published.

What Makes a Great Global Site?

While there are always a few exceptions to the rule, in general I have found that the most successful global websites share the following four attributes:

  • Global Reach: First, the content has to be in the user’s native language. Any company serious about leading in markets around the world has to support a great many languages.
  • Global Navigation: Next, the localized content has to be easy to find. If Web users who don’t speak English arrive at your .com website, how easily will they find their way to their local websites?
  • Localization:
  • Global Consistency: The website design and branding should be globally consistent. This benefits users who travel between the .com site and the country site. It also benefits website managers, who often support 20 or more country sites at a time.

These four attributes, evenly weighted, formed the basis for the Report Card evaluations. To make it into the top 20, a company had to do much more than simply support a lot of languages; it had to excel in all four categories.

Speaking of the top 20 websites, here they are:

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Google is no stranger to the top of our rankings. Google actually lost a few points this year because its global navigation was inconsistent between its expanding number of Web applications. But even with the loss in points, Google retained its lead.

Google does well in our rankings not just because its search engine interface is translated into 117 languages. If we look past the search engine altogether, we find other Google applications that also support an impressive range of languages. Gmail, for example, supports 41 languages. By itself, Gmail supports more languages than most other websites in our report. Google Adwords also supports 41 languages. Google Apps, one of Google’s latest services, supports 26 languages. To be a global player, your website (or Web application) must support a lot of languages, and Google understands this.

But Google is not alone in investing in language support. Microsoft supports 41 languages, followed by Cisco Systems with 38. HP, Volvo, Panasonic, Deloitte, Nokia, 3M, and IBM all support more than 30 languages.

20 Languages: The New Baseline

In 2003, few global websites supported more than ten languages. This year, the average number of languages supported by all 225 sites reviewed is 20, up from 18 last year.

Why are so many companies adding languages? You can blame emerging economies in countries like Russia, Ukraine, China, and Brazil – not to mention increased Internet penetration. The expanding European Union is also forcing companies to add languages, often through regulations within certain industries.

As shown here, languages such as Chinese, Polish, and Russian, are booming in popularity across global websites. Chinese was found on nearly eight out of ten sites reviewed, and it’s just a matter of time before Chinese becomes even more prevalent.

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Global Navigation: The Decline of the Pull-down Menu

While it’s too early to declare the death of the pull-down global gateway menu, shown below, there are clear signs that its popularity is fading.

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Consider John Deere. Over the past year the website migrated from a pull-down menu to a map icon that links to a global gateway page – a big improvement.

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This trend is great news for users who don’t speak English, because a “select language” pull-down menus is not nearly so user-friendly as a globe or map icon. When it comes to communicating with users around the world, global icons can make a huge difference in improving the user experience.

Global Consistency: The Global Standard

The use of global design templates was a relative novelty five years ago. Back then, local offices often took it upon themselves to design their country websites, often resulting in sites that bore little resemblance to the corporate websites.

This approach simply did not scale. When the corporate office sent out global promotional elements, the visuals had to resized (or redesigned) to fit the unique local websites, wasting time and resources. Local offices could make better use of their time creating local content than reworking global content.

Last year, 25 sites achieved a perfect score in global consistency. This year, 62 sites received a perfect score, including AOL, Steelcase, and Western Union.

Keep in mind, global consistency can (and should) leave plenty of room for local customization. And there may remain a country or two with the political weight to maintain a unique design, most notably Japan. But the trend is clear – global consistency works and works well.

About the Author

John Yunker is president of Byte Level Research, a Web globalization consultancy and author of Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.

Learn more about The 2008 Web Globalization Report Card.