Surfing In Tongues

It's not English-only anymore. It's time for Net merchants to go multilingual

Around the globe, English is the language of power: It's the official tongue in dozens of nations, from Australia to Zimbabwe. It's spoken by millions of people in more than 100 countries. Business and cultural elites everywhere can manage at least a few words. It's not surprising, then, that as the Internet has revolutionized global commerce, English has become the lingua franca of the World Wide Web.

But Achtung, baby. This Web is finally living up to its worldwide name. Just four years ago, English was the native language of 80% of Web users, and nearly all Netizens could read it to some degree. Today, English is the mother tongue of less than half the people on the Net, says market researcher Global Reach Inc. That means merchants had better not talk dollars to German-speaking cybercitizens who think in Deutsche marks. "It gives you an incentive to use a service--if it's multilingual," says Brigitte E. Biver, a German working for Commerzbank in Chicago. "It's smart."

Attenzione, Web merchants. This is no passing phase. As the Net penetrates ever-deeper into non-Anglophone societies, more users won't know English. By 2004, only one-third of Web users will be native English speakers, estimates Global Reach. In three years, Internet spending outside the U.S. will top $914 billion, two-thirds of the world's $1.64 trillion in e-commerce, according to researcher International Data Corp.

Smart Net companies such as Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) and (AMZN) are perking up their ears. Yahoo has sites in a dozen tongues, and Amazon hawks books on Japanese-, French-, and German-language sites. But they're the exception. Despite growing multiculturalism online, 55% of U.S.-based Net companies offer sites only in English, says IDC. Overseas firms are stepping into the breach. From Asian financial source to Central European city-guide, foreign-owned sites are creating pages in multiple languages to reach their customers around the world.

Companies reap big benefits from going global. eBay Inc., for example, runs sites in Germany and France--dominating those markets, selling twice as many goods as competitors do. And, an online store for Chinese foods, launched an English-only site last spring, but sales were sluggish. In September, it added Chinese descriptions, and orders jumped sevenfold, says Parry Singh, chief executive of Inc., GongShee's parent.

Building a multilingual e-commerce site is no cinch. The overhaul can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on a site's size, says Alex S. Pressman, president of Uniscape Inc., a globalization software company. It's not just about language: A site must handle orders in different currencies, characters, and measurements. And there are differences in the way cultures handle the Web. Some languages, and sites, are read from right to left. And U.S. Net icons such as mailboxes or shopping carts are unfamiliar in some countries. Designing Web sites is "different in each culture," says Alison C. Toon, globalization guru for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HWP) eight-language IT Resource Center. So snap to it, Webmasters, and start posting pages that reflect the wide world of today's Web.