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Leading with languages: Why 30 languages is below average

As I’ve said for some time, the Internet connects devices, but language connects people.

And when you examine the native languages spoken by the world’s 4+ billion Internet users, it becomes evident that you must support many languages in order to reach many people.

In fact, if you want to reach more than 90% of the world’s Internet users, prepare to support more than 40 languages. Which is why it is no surprise that the organizations and companies that support a significant number of languages also tend to boast a significant number of customers, members and visitors.

Facebook supports more than a hundred languages and boasts nearly two billion users. Google supports more than a hundred languages via its search engine which continues to be the dominant search engine around the world (Russia and China excepted). And Wikipedia (which emerged number one in the 2019 Report Card) supports more than 280 languages and averages more than 17 billion page views per month.

But, for the rest of us, adding languages isn’t all that easy — as it can be quite expensive. While I would argue that the investment (for most organizations) pays off over the long run, a common question I get asked is how many languages should we support?

This is a difficult question to answer without first understanding your business, budget, customers and goals.

But I can first point to the latest data from the 2019 Web Globalization Report Card and say that, for the world’s leading brands, 32 language is the “average” number of languages they support.

2019 Web Globalization Report Card

The nice thing about studying the same websites for so many years is that I can tell not only how many languages companies such as Apple, Microsoft, BMW and Philips have supported since 2002, but exactly which languages they have supported. And though the pace of language growth may have slowed over the past two years, the overall trend is clear — companies continue to add languages as they seek to expand their global reach. Starbucks, for example, supported just three languages in 2003; today it supports 27 languages (and added a new localized website just last year).

Looking ahead, I fully expect this average to double yet again. Only a handful of companies have localized for India and this country alone has more than 20 official languages. Hindi, for example, is supported by just 7% of the websites in the Report Card.

As I noted in my introduction to the Report Card this year, with all the talk of trade wars and tariffs and walls, one might think that companies have been pulling back globally. But this is simply not the case.

More to come…stay tuned!

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The best global websites from the 2019 Web Globalization Report Card

A little more than 15 years ago, I began benchmarking websites for a new report I had in mind, tentatively titled the Web Globalization Report Card. The number one website in the first Report Card was a startup company by the name of Google. Its search interface supported 50 languages, in large part due to volunteer translation. But most other websites I studied back then supported fewer than 10 languages. 

We’ve come a long way. Among the leading global brands, 30 languages is just “average.” Most of the websites in the top 25 list passed 30 languages quite a while ago, such as the world’s dictionary, Wikipedia. I rely on this resource at least once a week, and many millions of others do as well. The website is austerely designed, mobile friendly, and supports more than 280 languages. And because Wikipedia reflects the investment in time and resources of its community, that language total is all the more impressive and a reminder that, when it comes to taking content and websites global, we’re only just getting started. 

Joining Wikipedia on the list of the top 25 websites are regulars such as Google, Cisco, Deloitte NIVEA, Adobe, and Philips. New to the list this year are Uber, Volvo, and Emirates.

The teams behind the websites featured in the top 25 all deserve a round of virtual applause. Because I know acutely well how difficult it can be to build the case for supporting languages  — and how one must continually battle to support usability for all users, not just those who speak the dominant languages of the executive team.

A few key findings

  • Actions speak louder than words. Despite all the talk of walls and Brexit, companies continue to expand their global reach. The average number of languages supported by the leading global brands is now 32 languages—more than double the number of languages from a decade ago.
  • There’s a good reason Google ran an ad for Google Translate during the Super Bowl.The internet may connect computers but language connects people. Google Translate supports more than 100 languagesand acts as a linguistic “front end” for many websites.
  • Uber is on a language-expansion streak. It added 11 languages over the past two years—and now supports 46 languages.
  • Volvo finished as the highest-scoring automotive website.

Congrats to everyone on the list — and stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks ahead.

The 2019 Web Globalization Report Card


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Google and Wikipedia: Partners in (multilingual) content

In 2008, Google launched a project called Knol. Remember it?

It was designed to replace Wikipedia.

Google apparently wasn’t happy that so many of its visitors were quickly abandoning it for this nonprofit wealth of information.

But Knol died a silent death in 2012 and Wikipedia is, fortunately, still very much alive and well.

In fact, Google.org just donated $2 million to Wikipedia, a relatively small but generous donation to what I believe to be one of the greatest achievements of this internet.

Google wants Wikipedia to invest more heavily in fostering more languages. Wikipedia has already been doing this with projects such as the Project Tiger for Indic languages.

In addition to the donation, Google and Wikipedia are expanding Project Tiger, an initiative to expand the content on Wikipedia into additional languages. The pilot program has already increased the amount of locally relevant content in 12 Indic languages. With the expansion, the goal is to include ten more languages.

Techcrunch

And while Google’s investment in this project sounds altruistic, Google has plans for all that new content across in all those new languages.

Google has a 109-language machine translation engine — and the way this engine improves translation quality is by devouring well-translated source and target language content. And when it comes to languages such as Luganda and Māori, Google needs a great deal more content.

That’s where Wikipedia comes in.

Nevertheless, I’m glad to see Google putting money where it belongs. I visit Wikipedia at least a dozen times a week and the internet would be a sadder place without it.

PS: Wikipedia emerged on top of the 2018 Web Globalization Report Card — and is looking very good for the next report (now underway).

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A More Responsive Google Translate

Google Translate is the world’s most popular translation tool. The company says it now translates 30 trillion sentences a year across 103 languages.

The key data point here is the 103 languages. No other free translation tool comes close to this range of languages. And while the quality across the lesser-used languages is quite uneven, to put it kindly, Google Translate is still the only game in town. Which means some translation is far better, even poor quality, than none at all.

Last week, Google Translate debuted an upgraded design that is now fully responsive. Here is the new interface:

Google Translate: November 2018

And the previous interface:

Google Translate: July 2018

The functionality remains the same, but I appreciate the more prominent “detect language” selector on the text input side. Google pioneered browser-based language detection a decade ago and it is wise to call attention to this powerful feature. Many users assume that they must need to know the source language before taking advantage of Google Translate.

Also nice to see is increased default sizes of the target languages on this menu:

Target language menu

One recommendation I would make — adding a generic globe icon above this menu of languages. Perhaps the downward arrow is sufficient, but I would rather use an icon that speaks across all languages.

Now, for those of you wondering about this list of languages — as in Why are they all in English? — you ask a great question. As I note in my book and reports, you want your global gateway to be globally agnostic, so each language should be presented in its native language. But that’s the rule for a global gateway. What we have here is not a global gateway, but a localized user interface — localized into English.

If I change my web browser setting to Spanish, I will be greeted with this interface:

Spanish-language interface: Target language menu

Google Translate morphs into Google Traductor