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Fortune 500 - Multilingual websites

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New research carried out by translation company thebigword shows that multilingual websites are becoming a vital addition to business communications.

thebigword analysed the websites of every company in the Fortune 500, the ranking of America´s largest corporations carried out annually by Fortune Magazine.

The research found that 58% of America´s largest companies currently have multilingual websites. This is extremely positive for the localisation industry and for global business as a whole. As over half of the largest organisations in the USA are providing customers with information in several languages, it can´t be long until a consistent multilingual web presence is seen as a necessity. Just as normal websites were once seen as a gimmick, but have become imperative to everyday business, multilingual websites are following closely behind.

Companies at every level of the Fortune 500 have multilingual websites, but there is a slight correlation between the size of the organisation and whether or not it has a multilingual website. 70% of the largest 20 companies in the Fortune 500, including giants like Wal-Mart and General Motors, have some degree of localised content. For the 20 smallest companies in the Fortune 500, the proportion with translated content falls to 50%.

It´s great news that so many companies are catching on to globalisation, but it is clear that there is a growing divergence between companies committed to localisation and those that see it as unnecessary. Unsurprisingly, the findings showed that companies and brands which trade directly with the public were the most likely to provide localised websites. For example, the top five commercial banks all had multilingual content, as had 9 of the top ten.

These positive results are in stark contrast to other industries. Of the 42% of Fortune 500 websites that are not localised, companies in the petroleum refining industry (the largest of which has revenues in excess of $270bn) were found to be the least likely to have multilingual content. Only three of the ten largest petroleum refining companies have any multilingual content, and worryingly, just one of the top five companies was multilingual!

Hidden translations

The researchers were surprised to find that many websites that at first appeared to be available in only one language, were in fact multilingual. Many companies that are committed to translating content seem to hide it away, demanding the customer follows an elaborate series of links, all written in English, before reaching the translated pages.

It is just possible that a handful of multilingual sites were missed for this reason. thebigword used researchers from several countries, all of whom were experienced at searching out websites in different languages.

If such an experienced team failed to find a multilingual presence, it is unlikely that customers would have any more luck, and so it seems right to class these sites as only single-language. After all, there is little point in translating a website if customers cannot get access to it. Prominent language options are vital to ensure the translations are not wasted. Remember, the average internet user is extremely impatient and will only keep searching a site for 20-30 seconds before giving up and going elsewhere.

To this end, thebigword is campaigning for a standardised multilingual setup with the available languages shown clearly on the home page, to save customers from trawling through pages of English content to reach the translations.

These “hidden translations” appeared most often in websites which were only partially translated, such as company information and news pages. However this is not to suggest that partial website translation cannot be beneficial. Website localisation is a completely scalable process and even if a site is only partially translated, the result will be more effective than no translation at all. It is always advantageous for a large company to translate its contact pages and basic product information into suitable languages, but there´s no point in translating thousands of pages of technical product manuals for products that are unavailable in that country.

So what are suitable languages?

The majority of the Fortune 500 that do not have multilingual websites are domestic and operate only inside the USA. However, website localisation should not just be targeted at global communication. Apart from global investors and foreign customers, there is a considerable population in America that does not speak English as a first language. Official statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that an incredible 17.9% of Americans do not speak English at home. 10.7% of Americans prefer to speak Spanish and a further 7.2% speak another language other than English ( Similarly, companies that trade in Canada would be well advised to translate a proportion of their content into Canadian French. This is not to say that these groups cannot speak English, but the growth in multilingual websites shows that people are more likely to buy from a website with content in their preferred language. Of the 500 companies in this study, 39 had content translated into just one language. 29 of these had content translated into Spanish and the remainder were mainly French or Japanese

For Global markets, Chinese cannot be ignored as the main growth language. In a recent survey, 87% of localisation professionals expected Chinese to be the hottest language of 2006. Chinese-speaking internet users are set to double by 2010 and the language is soon set to pass English as the dominant internet language (

Growth is also expected in Eastern European languages, which will be in great demand this year as more countries join the European Union, meanwhile Turkish is being mentioned more frequently by clients and vendors due to the potential entry of Turkey into the European Union.

Translating content into any of these languages can help companies to develop export markets and cater for foreign speakers in their own country, and will certainly make the company more attractive to foreign investors. Not every company needs their entire website translating, but most would enjoy much improved relations with customers and investors by taking more languages into account.

In an age where the internet offers almost unlimited choice, a website should help to streamline multilingual business, rather than making the language barrier even more problematic. Customers will soon be demanding the choice to communicate in whatever language they choose, and with decreasing brand loyalty, if the first choice does not have a multilingual website, they will quickly move onto one that does.

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