Google to the Internet: Go mobile or watch your sales rank fall

Four years ago, for the Web Globalization Report Card, I began noting (and rewarding) those websites that supported mobile devices. Even then one could easily see the virtual grounds shifting in favor of mobile devices. But at the time, only about 20% of the websites studied supported mobile devices.

In this year’s Report Card, the majority of websites are now mobile friendly. Over the past two years, I’ve witnessed a flurry of newly responsive web designs from a diverse range of companies including Philips, Merck, VMware and Pepsi.

Even Apple now supports a responsive website. Shown below are before and after screen grabs:

apple_responsive

If your company hasn’t yet made the leap to mobile, now is the time to accelerate your plans — unless you don’t care much for your search ranking.

Google has made it abundantly clear that websites that do not support mobile devices are going to suffer.

Beginning April 21st.

According to Google:

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.

All languages. All regions. This makes great sense given that markets like China and Indonesia are overwhelmingly experiencing the Internet via mobile devices.

Google wants to remain relevant to mobile users which means your website needs to remain relevant to Google.

Which means, ultimately, remaining relevant to your web users. Particularly if you plan to succeed globally.

Is your global gateway stuck in the basement?

When you welcome visitors into your home, you probably don’t usher them directly to the basement.

Yet when it comes to websites, this is exactly how many companies treat visitors from around the world.

That is, they expect visitors to scroll down to the footer (basement) of their websites in order to find the global gateway.

Now I want to emphasize that many companies smartly use country codes to create country-specific “front doors.” In addition, many companies use backend technologies such as geolocation and content negotiation to guess what language/locale website the user prefers before forcing the user to select one.

But these technologies don’t work perfectly and there are times when users need to be able to self-select the language they wish to use or country website they wish to visit.

Which leads us to the global gateway.

Apple has long forced international users down to the footer to locate the global gateway as shown below. I’ve already written about the flaws with the flag itself.

apple gateway basement

Apple is not alone. Here is the Microsoft footer (on the Thai website):

Microsoft Thai gateway

To underscore that there is plenty of room in the header for the gateway, below is the header from that same web page.

msft_header_thai

Do you think we could cut back on that search window a tad to make room for the gateway? I would think so.

Kayak manages to fit its global gateway in the header — see the flag at the far right:

kayak_header

So does GE (I love the globe icon):

ge_header

You can tell so much about a company by how it structures its website.

The global gateway is more than a functional element, it is in many ways an extension of your brand.

It’s important to greet visitors from around the world as warmly as you greet those users in your home country.

When you send your global gateway into the basement you are sending many users there as well.

Apple continues to neglect its global gateway

Every time Apple updates its web design (which it did recently) I get hopeful that the global gateway will receive a similar upgrade.

But this has not yet happened.

Apple’s global gateway remains firmly entrenched in the use of flags. And that’s unfortunate.

Flags are not the best icons for global navigation. They are fraught with cultural baggage and they do not scale well.

Look at the chaos of colors here — and how much real estate is required to include the countries:

apple gateway

Another problem with using flags as a navigational device is the lack of certain  “regional” flags.

For example, Apple supports a Latin American website, denoted by this useless icon:

apple_LA

Am I as a web user supposed to know this Apple icon is intended to signify Latin America?

Too often, the global gateway has no internal champion — a person or team in charge of ensuring that global navigation does not get overlooked during the process of any redesign. I suspect that this is the issue with Apple.

In a future post I’ll discuss something else that is wrong with this gateway, and also not unique to Apple.

A look back at the language growth of eBay, Coke, Apple, AmEx and Amazon

Sometimes it’s difficult to see a revolution when you’re standing right in the middle of it.

Which is how I still feel sometimes when it comes to web globalization.

Web globalization feels at times like slow-moving revolution. Every year, companies add, on average, a language or two to their websites. And while one or two languages may not seem all that “revolutionary” at the time, over a number of years, the growth is significant.

Particularly when you take a ten-year perspective.

Shown below are five of the many websites that I’ve tracked since 2004. Note that English for the US is not figured in the counts:

Language growth 2004 to 2014

In 2004, eBay supported just 9 languages; today it supports 25.

American Express went from 24 languages to 40.

Coca-Cola went from 26 languages to 43.

Apple has more than doubled its language count in that time as well, though I believe Apple should be doing much more in this regard; Apple still lags the websites of Samsung, Microsoft, and Google.

What’s important to note is that most companies more than doubled the number of languages they support over this time span. Not just the companies listed here but a good number of the companies in the Report Card.

As for Amazon, it too doubled its support for languages, but  remains well behind the pack in linguistic reach. I’ve long argued that Amazon took its foot off the web globalization pedal prematurely. And now that Apple is selling digital media in more than 50 countries, with Google close behind, I wonder if this is the year we see Amazon start to invest in global expansion again.

The language growth underscores a point I often make regarding web globalization — you need to think about “scale” as early as possible.

That is, will your global template scale? Will your workflows, management structure, vendors, and software scale?

You may be planning to add only one additional languages this year, but as this chart demonstrates, you may be adding 20 languages over the long run.

As I’ve said before, the Internet connects computers but it is language that connects people. This is the revolution going on all around us, though often in slow motion. 

Web globalization predictions for 2014

Globe

I’m optimistic about the year ahead.

I base this optimism in part on discussions I’ve had this year with dozens of marketing and web teams across about ten countries. While every company has its own unique worldview and challenges, a number of patterns have emerged. And I can tell you that there is a great deal of enthusiasm for web globalization — backed by C-level investments.

And this enthusiasm is not simply driven by China any longer — which is a healthy thing to see. Executives have a more realistic and sober view of China, and this has resulted in smarter and longer-term planning and investments. That’s not to say China won’t continue to dominate the headlines in 2014, as it most certainly will. But companies are now taking a closer look at countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, India, and much of the Middle East.

As I look ahead, here are a few other trends I see emerging in the year ahead:

  • Machine translation (MT) goes mainstream. I’ll have much more to say about this in future (you can subscribe to updates on the right) but suffice it to say, MT is not just for customer support anymore. Companies are looking to use MT as a competitive differentiator, and we’re going to see more real-world examples on customer-facing websites. And customers around the world will love it. (And, no, I’m suggesting that human translators are in any danger of losing their jobs; quite the opposite!)
  • Responsive global websites also go mainstream. True, there are valid reasons for NOT embracing responsive websites, but for most companies, this is a clear path forward. It helps manage the chaos internally and frees up resources for mobile apps — which are becoming, for some of us, more important than the website itself.
  • Language pullback. What? Companies are going to drop languages? That’s right. Some that I’ve spoken to already have dropped a language or two, and others are considering following along. I’m never a fan of dropping languages for budgetary reasons, as this is almost always a shortsighted decision, but it’s a fact of life as companies learn to align their language strategies with their budgets. In the end, pullbacks are far from ideal but probably a sign that companies are no longer making blind assumptions that adding languages will automatically increased sales (this isn’t always the case). So even this trend, while minor, is ultimately going to be a positive one.
  • Privacy becomes a selling point. The “NSA-gate” scandal is only just beginning to be felt around the world. And the threat to American-based tech companies is very real. I will not be surprised if Google or Microsoft announces non-US hosted services (to bypass the NSA’s grip and attempt to rebuild trust with consumers). And there are already a number of startups emerging in various countries promising to keep user data safe from the “evil” American intelligence agencies. You know this is a serious issue when Apple and Google and Microsoft (and other tech companies) all agree on something.
  • A non-Latin gTLD awakens American companies. I’ve long written about why I think the Internet is still broken for non-English speakers. But now that ICANN is moving ahead with delegation of generic TLDs, I believe that one (or more) of these domains will act as a wake-up call to those companies that have long overlooked them — and I’m including a number of Silicon Valley software companies as well. I don’t want to predict what domain I think it will be (they are all available for you to see) — let me know if you have a candidate.
  • Apple drops flags from its global gateway. True, this is not my first prediction along these lines. But do I think 2014 will be the year. And this will make my life a bit easier because I won’t have to respond to any more “But Apple is using flags so why can’t we” questions.

So what do you think about the year ahead?

If you have any predictions to share, please let me know.