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Will Facebook become the world’s largest translation platform?

Techcrunch reports from Facebook’s developer conference today in which company announced that it would open its “crowdsourcing” translation platform to its legion of application developers. Here’s the press release excerpt:

As a result of the worldwide success of Facebook’s translation system, the company has opened up the Translation Application to any developer using Facebook Platform. Beginning today, any Facebook developer can make their application available in any of the 20 languages that are currently available on Facebook, with 69 more coming soon.

Developers can now access the Translation Application to either translate their applications themselves, or open up translation of their application to Facebook users around the world, who will work together to define it in their native languages.

Developers are naturally very excited about this development because they can tap into the same group of enthusiastic volunteers who are currently translating Facebook’s interface into different languages. Or, developers can pay translators or agencies to do the translation.

Facebook knows that part of the value of its platform are the third-party applications. As I mentioned a few days ago, I was concerned that so many of Apple’s iPhone apps are currently in English only. And it’s safe to say that Apple is nowhere close to launching anything similar to what Facebook is now doing.

As Facebook goes global with its platform, it wants all of its 400,000 developers (more than half of which live outside of the US) to come along as well. Opening up the translation platform is a win-win for everyone.

And we could see Facebook’s translation platform become a force onto itself.

It will be interesting to see what role translation agencies and freelance translators will play. I see a nice opportunity, because some of these app developers will want to pay a premium to have professional translators involved.

PS: Techcrunch also shares some data on Facebook’s global traffic growth — a sign that this translation program is perfectly timed.

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Facebook hits German competitors

StudiVZ in Poland

If you’ve read this blog recently, you are aware of John’s reports on Facebook’s efforts to translate its Website into German and other European languages. I am a keen observer of the “kraut-sourcing” efforts. However, in Germany Facebook faces an entrenched competitor: “StudiVZ”.

StudiVZ is a social networking platform, very similar to Facebook. In contrast to Facebook, the positioning and the target group is extremely focused (for example, during signup you have to explicitly provide your high school or university). There are other affiliated networks like “SchülerVZ” specifically targeting younger people and pupils (until they are “old enough” to join StudiVZ).

In the past StudiVZ has tried to expand into other countries, too, and translated the Website into French, Spanish, Italian and Polish. But despite its efforts and except for Poland, the results were poor: the number of users were well below expectations. This led to a reorganisation of the staff, e.g. reduced teams which operate independently in each country. And now StudiVZ announced that it will “hibernate” its international expansion and instead it will focus its efforts in a renewed and improved software architecture.

For me this a clear move to counter Facebook’s advance in Europe, and especially Germany. Let’s see how the opponents stack up:

  • Facebook has an estimated user base of 60 million users worldwide and app. 600.000 in Germany. StudiVZ has app. 4,8 million users and SchülerVZ app. 2,7 millions. Numbers are currently increasing sharply. Facebook 0 : StudiVZ 1
  • StudiVZ is extremely focused in marketing its platform to students and teenagers. Therefore the numbers above show a deep market penetration in this growing group. Facebook 0 : StudiVZ 2
  • Facebook has a lot of venture capital backing, while StudiVZ has the backing of only the German publishing group Holzbrinck. Facebook 1 : StudiVZ 2
  • StudiVZ is trailing Facebook in technology and needs to modernize its software architecture. Right now StudiVZ is a “closed shop” and does not yet allow independent developers in its ecological niche. And the renewed technology might take some time to completely roll out. Facebook 2 : StudiVZ 2
  • StudiVZ has translated its Website into several languages and can exploit this language base in the future. Facebook has a very large and expanding global user base. Shortly they will have the same language capabilities. Facebook 3 : StudiVZ 3.

Right now I cannot see a clear winner here in Germany, but I see some small advantages for Facebook. But winning over the users from StudiVZ will be difficult and will consume time and money. Maybe a takeover would do the trick.

Moreover, the global reach of users is crucial for potential partners, e.g. for content providers or technological partners. I am referring here to the rumours of a Nokia+Facebook deal. I reckon the combination of mobile Web and global social networking will be one of the most interesting developments in the near future.

But don’t forget Orkut and Android, Google’s social platform and mobile technology… Ah, what interesting times we live in!


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Is Facebook “translation worthy” or just plain cheap?

I read at Design Across Cultures that Facebook is planning to use “crowdsourcing” to allow its users to create translated content.

Crowdsourcing is a hot new buzzword that is best illustrated by Wikipedia — you take a lot of motivated volunteers, give them access to your Web site, and let them go crazy. I’m simplifying things of course, and crowdsourcing is no cure-all. People sometimes game the system for various reasons. But the net result can amount to something that could never have been created without the crowd involvement.

Now, Wikipedia has next to no money and it’s a non-profit; crowdsourcing is not just a great strategy but a necessity.

And crowdsourcing can be a great way to localize your Web site.

Google relied on crowdsourcing in its early years to translate its search engine interface into more than 60 languages (and still relies on the technique in more limited ways today). Netvibes relied on volunteer translators to quickly localize its interface into more than 60 languages.

Naturally, the idea of having your Web site translated for “free” is alluring to a lot of companies. But very few companies will find that they are translation worthy. Web users will not bother to translate a Web interface if they don’t actually see a need to use the product itself in their native language.

So Is Facebook Translation Worthy?

You can’t fault Facebook for trying to get some free translation help, and I suspect that it will find plenty of volunteer translators, though it will take time. But a part of me can’t help wondering why the company hasn’t just coughed up a few dollars to get its localization efforts moving sooner rather than later. After all, doesn’t the company have a market value of, like, $100 billion?

The challenge with crowdsourcing translations is that nothing is truly free. Facebook has to dedicate people and resources to create the translation workflow and approval processes to ensure that the finished translations are of high quality. These things take time, and time also costs money.

Given the importance of acting quickly when it comes to taking social networking sites global, it seems to me that Facebook would be wise to pay for localization for some core languages and then use crowdsourcing to support the less-strategic languages. This way, Facebook could accelerate tackling those markets that are already seeing Facebook knockoffs (like the Russian knockoff shown below).

Russian facebook

Relying on volunteers to translate content is an emerging trend — one that can give a company a tremendous advantage over its competition. And I think we’ll see many more companies try this strategy in the years ahead.

But before getting started, ask yourself: Is our Web site translation worthy?

UPDATE: Techcrunch provides additional details on Facebook’s translation efforts.