The Internet connects computers, but languages connect people.
Fifteen years ago, few websites supported 10 languages. In fact, it was common to believe that your website was "global" at five or six languages. This was understandable, given the simple fact that most Internet users at the time were native-English speakers.
My, how times have changed.
Today, fewer than 20% of the roughly 3 billion Internet users are native-English speakers.
That percentage will only decrease as the next billion Internet users come online over the next several years.
So, how many languages should your website feature to be competitive globally? To answer this, first you need to understand how many languages the leading global brands support.
Learn From the Language Leaders
Since 2003, I have tracked the languages supported by more than 100 websites across more than 15 industry verticals. To ensure that those websites reflect the leading global brands, I include more than 80% of the Interbrand best global brands.
As shown below, the average number of languages (excluding US English) has more than doubled since 2006, from 14 languages to 30.
Who are these language leaders, exactly? It's not just Google and Facebook that have invested heavily in languages over the years.
Here is a selected list of companies that lead in languages (US English excluded):
Company: Languages Supported
American Express: 40
Developing a Successful Language Strategy
Just because Coca-Cola supports 43 languages doesn't mean that your website should do the same. Amazon, for example, supports a mere 9 languages (not counting English). And though I do believe Amazon should be investing more heavily in Web globalization, the fact is that every company needs to develop its own unique language strategy.
Factors that companies typically rely upon to help develop language strategies include...
- Country/market expansion goals. Companies rely on a host of indicators (GDP, demographics, political climate, competition, etc.) to determine whether and when they should expand into new markets. And when a new market is planned, the language(s) spoken within that market should be supported.
- Internet users by language. Because languages are not restricted by borders, sometimes companies take a language-based approach to going global. For example, supporting a Latin American flavor of Spanish could generate significant new website visitors from not only across much of Latin America but also the United States. Spanish is often the first language I recommend that companies add when they have just begun website globalization.
- Languages supported by competitors. Copying the language strategy of a competitor is a simple way to prioritize languages, but it might also leave you blind to market opportunities your competitor has overlooked. Also, if you don't have a plan for determining "next" languages, you'll be left playing catch-up with your competitors.
Language is ultimately a means to an end. When the Internet was largely the domain of the United States and Western Europe, a company could succeed with 5 or 10 languages. But today, the Internet is populated by 3 billion people, most of whom do not speak English as a native language.
If you want to be sure that you're not only competing globally but actually leading globally, one thing is certain—the need to support languages.
And lots of them.