Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

All around the world

All around the world

  • Article 7 of 26
  • M-iD, June 2004
Creating a global web site with international appeal places huge demands on both managers and technology.

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Creating a web presence that has equal appeal for audiences in different countries around the world is never easy. The expense of creating local points of presence is potentially massive; designing a look that will work in all markets is almost impossible; and getting all the local sites to reflect the same corporate message and brand - but tailored for local sensibilities - is a task that would intimidate even the most experienced information manager.

Cultural variations

What looks good to one culture can look awful to another. Here are some of the things that need to be remembered when designing web pages and workflows for other markets.


A black border on a web page indicates the author is in mourning.


Finns like lots of white space on their sites. They're also highly resistant to "full on" sales messages.


France has strict rules on marketing offers. Wordings such as "free upgrade" are very rarely allowed.


German words are longer: content is typically 30% longer than the English equivalent. To meet with legal requirements, web sites also need more disclaimers and links to privacy policies.


The Japanese prefer their web pages to be relatively busy and full of images. A black border around a page is insulting.


Spanish marketing departments always need to know the gender of anyone filling in a form on a web site.


Introducing a workflow system is one thing, getting the British to use it is another. According to one WCMS vendor, "while everyone in the UK thinks workflow is a good thing, the number of organisations that implement them is far lower here than in other countries. The attitude is: It's great for other people, just not for us."

Yet many multinational organisations do manage to deploy global web sites successfully. The secret of their success is a combination of technology and management.

What is clear, say experts, is that the solution to maintaining a global web presence is the same as maintaining a large web site: a web content management system (WCMS). There are a number of reasons for that.

Typically, a WCMS will use a template-based approach to serving content, so designers can develop a standard 'look' for a site into which content is inserted for each page. By developing templates that are appropriate for international markets as well as the domestic market, the same content can be reused where appropriate without having to be rewritten.

A WCMS can also ensure branding remains consistent across international sites by providing a central repository of images that can be used and a permissioning system: so, for instance, only one logo might be available for use and only authorised users can change it or upload a new image or logo.

A WCMS' workflow system can move content between users for writing, editing and eventual approval, so that content is only published on the web site if it meets the organisation's policies on branding and so on. And 'blueprinting', 'cloning' and other similar WCMS technologies provide easy ways to create new sites by copying existing ones and then changing particular settings.

Lastly, and most importantly for some organisations, web page authoring no longer needs to be done by webmasters or IT departments but can be performed by any authorised business user with simple tools such as a web browser or Microsoft Word, thus freeing up bottlenecks and reducing the need for large numbers of highly trained staff to maintain an up-to-date web presence.

But for a global presence, organisations need to look for more features in a WCMS. It must be able to display and store content in languages other than English. The interface of the WCMS must be localised as well, in order that any users in local offices that have to author content for the site will be able to use the system.

Fortunately for buyers, the maturing WCMS market has meant that more and more vendors are providing systems localised in many languages other than English.

While the costs involved in buying the hardware and software required for a WCMS, training users, getting content into the system from an existing distributed infrastructure and then deploying it may seem high, the payback is usually quick, even if the only savings initially are from the reduced cost of hosting so many once-separate web sites on a single centralised platform.

However, the biggest issues surrounding global web site deployment surround culture and management. In many instances, organisations already have sites for some local markets, and these need to be integrated into the new infrastructure and the processes surrounding its use.

Lessons from the floor

Global web sites: Easier in theory than in practice

"It was a bit of a stretch initially. Our biggest problem was getting IT solutions that scale. Most solutions will scale, but not at the 30-40% rate year on year that Dell does. We also had a fourfold increase in staffing levels as we moved from a US-centric approach to a local approach."
Colin Greene, head of e-content for Dell Europe. The Dell Europe site is now 400,000 pages - four times the US site.

"The software we used was hot off the press: we pioneered a lot of the work and we had to wait for the release of the software to continue the development. We had to make the site easily updatable as a result, so we've had to go back over older ground: we've come up with better methods and older content now looks a bit childish and not as efficient or as effective as the newer stuff."
Steve Thompson, e-business projects manager, MG Rover. In the 12 months since re-architecting its global web site (700 pages in eight languages), costs have halved and are expected to halve again.

"Initially, we were limited by budget and technology into producing something quite limited, quite clunky, but that did the job. Fortunately, content management systems have come down in price now so that you don't have to mortgage your soul for 5,000 years to afford them."
Simon Grant, head of information systems, Tate Galleries. Tate's site, formerly tens of thousands of static pages, has now been moved to a web content management system, the cost of which has been recovered within a year of deployment.

"We found that if we asked people up front for their opinions and comments on designs, it was amazing how quickly we achieved a consensus. If we presented a design as a fait accompli, suddenly it had fatal problems."
Peter Tait, vice president of e-business strategy at Documentum. Documentum now has sites with localised content for countries including France, Germany Spain, Italy, Korea, Japan and the UK.

A little local difficulty

"You need change management for the business culture," agrees Jeremy Young, managing director of Tridion, a Dutch WCMS vendor (as Young confesses, Tridion has always had to support multiple languages and locales, "because no-one except the Dutch can speak Dutch"). "There is a natural local resistance to any kind of centralisation. The local presence has typically been built up locally and there is resistance to having that taken away." As with any large project, there needs to be local sign-up to a centrally controlled WCMS, and getting local offices to embrace the system can be hard.

A typical sweetener is to allow local offices to have a degree of control over the content on their site. "There are usually pockets of the business vying for ownership," says Ixos' Godfrey. "If you can create champions of the system in local offices, it is a lot easier to get buy-in."

The degree of control offered to local offices will vary from organisation to organisation. Bryan Richter, CEO of WCMS vendor Stellent, says that in his experience, the degree of control most organisations consider appropriate varies over time. "The pendulum swings from having complete central control to the complete opposite over time," he says.

Having complete control at headquarters over web content can prevent inconsistencies but can also create bottlenecks as managers muse upon suggested updates from local offices. It can cause resentment in local offices, which can have knock-on effects in other areas of the business. Such sites are also unlikely to reflect local sensibilities - and blunders in this area can have a detrimental effect on business.

Too much devolution is equally risky: more and more resources are needed to create local content, pushing costs up, and the risk of brand inconsistency increases. "During the dotcom boom, everyone [in an organisation] contributed to sites," says James Murray, Interwoven's vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "It was chaos. And while that can be good in the early days of a small business, it's not so good for GE, for instance."

The optimum degree of localisation is somewhere in between for most organisations. "It's very expensive having everything customised," says Colin Greene, head of e-content for Dell Europe. "It's best to concentrate your resources on the most frequently used 80% or so, particularly all content on the purchase path, customer services and post-sales."

Watch your language

Some organisations baulk at serving English language pages to non-English speakers. At WCMS supplier ATG, senior product manager Ian Davis argues that, "If a web page is in your language, it creates a feeling of empathy." Ben Salama, former vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Uniscape, maintains that, "It's a fact that users spend twice as long on a web site in their natural language and they're three times more likely to buy something." But Tridion's Young says that the reaction from these users isn't what most people in the UK would expect. "Here is the UK, we're not very forgiving of anything foreign appearing on an English-language site. But other cultures are far more used to this hybrid."

For organisations in two minds about which languages they should translate their site into, web analytics tools that can segment web audiences by location can prove invaluable.

With web content management systems sufficiently mature and scalable to manage hosting a global web presence, most of the issues surrounding a global deployment involve management and cultural issues, rather than technology. If approached the right way, a global approach can save money and even unite previously disconnected offices.

Web content management approaches

Centralised approach

  • Content on global web sites created and managed centrally
  • Very little local content on central sites or local sites
  • Local web sites point users to central sites
  • Low cost to produce content
  • Efficient approach for content production
  • Easy to maintain consistent brand and messaging
  • Little or no localisation
  • Company may appear to be unresponsive or insensitive to local market needs
  • Serves lowest common denominator
  • Content does not reflect cultural preferences

Decentralised approach

  • Local offices create and manage web content on separate local sites
  • Very little content re-use from site to site
  • Content highly targeted toward local markets (supports local marketing initiatives)
  • Content is relevant to local markets
  • Content and presentation reflect local cultural preferences
  • High cost to recreate content from location to location
  • Ineffective use of global marketing materials (for example, logos and photos)
  • Introduces risk of inconsistent brand and weak messaging

A lingua franca?

Anyone who has tried Google's Babelfish service will know that automated translation software still has a long way to go. A headline such as "Al Fayed going to Fulham" typically ends up translated to "Aluminium Fayed going to Fulham", thanks to software that doesn't recognise the word "Al" except as the chemical symbol for aluminium. An idiom in one language, such as "out of sight, out of mind", ends up as "the insane invisible man" in another.

But public translation engines - which only score about 70% in accuracy tests - are considerably different to those used in the corporate market. Systems such as those used by SDL International, Trados and thebigword incorporate elements of manual translation, workflow management and 'translation memory' to provide a reasonable, albeit slower approximation to automatic translation.

Jessica Roland, head of Documentum's localisation programme, explains: "You can teach a system corporate vocabulary and what the translations are, then store it in 'translation memory' for use later." Since much corporate literature intended for the public will repeat certain phrases used in other documents, these phrases need only be translated once; then, when text is found to match the phrase, the existing translation can be used, removing the need to translate it again.

This "translation memory" can build up a considerable library of phrases over time. Any other phrases can be passed on to human translators - or even translation software, before being passed on to a translator to have the rough edges removed - where they can be translated then passed back for final approval by a content editor. Properly trained translation software can often also translate new phrases that are similar to already translated phrases.

What takes the automation step one further is the ability of some translation software and agencies to fit into content management workflows using XML, web services or other workflow standards. Then content editors can simply workflow the content to be translated using the system and have it returned to them within hours or minutes using the content management system.

Speaking in many tongues

A radical rethink of its web strategy has improved the way British Council reaches out to the rest of the world.

The British Council is a government-backed agency dedicated to promoting relationships between the UK and other countries. Run by the British consulates, it has 109 offices worldwide and operations in 92 countries. In 2001, the British Council had 240 web sites and approximately 200 HTML [hypertext markup language] authors providing content from around the world. Fifty new media companies were contracted to develop content and 80 ISPs were used for hosting.

"It was a recipe for anarchy," recalls Ian Barnes, global web manager for the British Council. "We had multiple online identities; our corporate marks were being abused - offices were even animating the logo. Many offices had bespoke web content management solutions because they couldn't afford western prices. And we're not even sure how many web sites we had then: we knew of 240, but there were many more we didn't know about."

To save costs and ensure a consistent brand, the British Council decided to use one technical design and content standard and to remove those sites that did not meet their primary purpose.

After conducting market research and polling 40,000 site visitors, staff and customers, the Council concluded that rather than try to offer all possible information and services about Britain, it should limit itself to presenting web site visitors with information about education and the best English-language courses available.

"Anybody looking to deploy on a global basis has to understand why they're going online and then get everyone to sign up to that," says Barnes. "The advantage of doing so much research is that nobody can contradict it." So although many internal parties argued that their interests should be featured online, Barnes was able to point to the market research data to convince them.

The Council then commissioned an online design developed to work across all cultures. The designs had to be flexible enough to take into account right-left languages such as Farsi and the 35 languages used on all the sites.

Similarly, the content management system used to host and run the sites had to have been localised into all the languages used by content authors around the world: the new media company hired to implement the designs recommended an Obtree C3 system (since upgraded to the C4 system, now called Ixos Web Content Management and owned by Open Text). Barnes believes it was a good choice; he does, however, recommend hiring an Obtree administrator with experience of the system in order to get the most out of it and ensure scalability.

After a phase to design and pilot the new system, the first few sites were deployed in November 2001, replacing the existing sites. The roll-out is still in progress, with 40 of the original sites still to be brought under the global umbrella. Content authoring and translation is still performed by local offices, although the content management system allows the UK office to determine exactly what they can change.

"It helps with the buy-in if you let people modify and alter content locally," explains Barnes. "With our original web presence in 1996, local offices had to send updates to the main office and wait for the changes to be approved and made. Now the local offices all view centralisation with suspicion - and rightly so."

The roll-out has already paid for itself and Barnes is looking forward to being able to start the next phase of site development, when greater interactivity and an Autonomy search engine will be added. But with the system now proved in tens of countries, Barnes is confident that such a global change will be far easier to manage than ever before.

Cost analysis

Costs and returns over five years

  • Expenditure Software procurement: £195,000
  • Market research: £210,000
  • Hardware procurement: £210,000
  • Design and piloting: £820,000
  • Training: £780,000
  • Systems administration: £500,000


Hosting costs: cut from £8.9 million to £2.3 million by having a single hosting provider in the UK. Further savings expected as more of the sites are moved to the central location.

Return on investment: Already reached break-even; by 2005, the British Council will have saved £3 million.

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