If you are flying the Taiwan flag on your website, consider yourself warned.
As I’ve written many times over the past year, China is paying close attention to how multinationals refer to Taiwan on their websites, not just textually but visually. And this includes the global gateway.
But the fact is, flags are completely unnecessary in global gateways — not just the Taiwan flag but any flag. And now is a very good time to extricate flags from your website.
Flag free means frustration free.
I’ve published a new report that details the many reasons for removing flags from your website; it also includes examples of websites that have gone flag free, including Costco, Google, Sanofi and Siemens.
As readers of this blog well know, I often refer to China and Taiwan when making the case for avoiding the use of flags on a global gateway. There are many others reasons, of course, but geopolitical issues have become more acute lately.
I could also point to the Russia and Kosovo as another case study for avoiding the use fo flags. As this New York Times article notes Kosovo, despite being a FIFA member, cannot fly its flag at World Cup stadiums:
The flag — which depicts a gold map of Kosovo under six white stars on a blue background — is one of more than two dozen barred from World Cup stadiums by tournament organizers.
Here’s a visual of the flags not allowed into the stadiums:
While most countries acknowledge Kosovo and its flag, Russia does not. And because this World Cup is hosted by Russia, well, so it goes.
Which brings me back to your global gateway.
Your global gateway is a tool for helping visitors find (or change) their locale setting, not a geopolitical statement.
Globalia is the leading travel company in Spain, generating 3.5 billion euros in revenues across more than a dozen brands.
I visited the global website recently and noticed something missing from the home page — my native language. Not surprisingly, the global home page defaults to Spanish. So I went looking for a link to English-language content.
I first scanned the header. No luck.
Then I moved down to the footer and, in painfully small type, I found the link to the “English version.”
Clearly, this is not the best place to locate a “global gateway,” even if the gateway itself is simply a link to a second language. Language/location links should always be in the header to save your visitors from needless searching and scrolling.
Globalia could take a page from one its companies, AirEuropa, which does an excellent job of locating its global gateway in the header — and using a generic globe icon, as shown here:
Since so many global home pages default to English, I find the Globalia home page to be a useful case study for many American-based multinationals. Because here in the US, it’s tempting to just assume that the global home page of any company should be in English. While this may be the case for most multinationals, the most sophisticated companies greet users in their preferred languages, whatever that language may be.
Web localization isn’t simply about supporting a set number of languages, it’s about support the most important languages of your customers, whatever those languages may be. And, when you do invest in all those languages, don’t let them waste away by burying your global gateway in the footer.
Apple has redesigned its website many times over the past decade but one thing has remained largely unchanged — its global gateway strategy.
Here’s a screen shot of the global gateway menu from back in 2010:
And here it is today:
But over the past few days Apple did something I’ve been waiting for them to do for some time — begin using geolocation.
Here’s how it works…
If you’re in the US and you try visiting the home page of, say, Apple France, at www.apple.fr, you see this message above the top menu:
The message gives you a shortcut back to the US (.com) website.
And if you’re in Japan and you visit www.apple.com, you see this message:
In this case, the user can go to the Japan home page with one click.
This is a step forward for Apple and I’m happy to see it.
But there are still flaws with the execution which could use improvement.
Beginning with the flags.
I don’t know why Apple clings to flags with such passion. I do believe Apple will drop flags eventually and I’m hoping the move towards geolocation portends bigger and better changes to come. Flags are completely unnecessary for this geo-header to be effective. Also, if you wish to select a different locale you will be bumped back to the array of flags on the global gateway menu. As a general rule, flags should not be used for navigational purposes.
Now let’s examine the message itself: Choose another country to see content specific to your location and shop online.
The first issue is the absence of “or region” in this sentence. The intention here is not to be verbose but to help Apple avoid any geopolitical issues, particularly given the recent issues that American multinationals have been having with China. Better yet, perhaps the text can be rewritten so “or region” isn’t even necessary. How about asking if the visitor would like to visit a more local website.
Finally, the mixture of pull-down menu with the “Continue” button is a bit cumbersome. Since the pull-down menu lists only two options I’m confident there is a better UI that would save the visitor a click.
Issues aside, I am happy to see Apple moving ahead with geolocation. I can imagine this was not an easy decision. After all, Apple is very sensitive to user privacy and this type of implementation will naturally lead some visitors to wonder how Apple knows where they are. But this is not an invasion of privacy; this is a step towards providing a better experience.
I also believe this change is a sign of a larger shift in website strategy, a more decentralized model, which I will be talking about later this year.
And let’s suppose this vendor refers to Taiwan as a country and the email goes out to people in China who believe differently, and they happen to be in a position to punish you by blocking your website within China.
According to Skift it was indeed a vendor that led to this misstep. And the CEO, Arne Sorenson, has vowed to make sure it won’t happen again:
“We should have caught it, even though it was provided by a third party, and we didn’t catch it,” Sorenson said. “We moved quickly to fix that mistake and we are moving as quickly as we can to look at all of the stuff we’ve got exposed out there online to customers in China and customers around the world to make sure we are not making similar mistakes in the future.”
This is a lesson that all companies should take to heart. When you hire vendors to communicate with the world on your behalf — you have to audit their work just as closely as you would your own. Because at the end of the day it’s your brand name that will suffer.
Here we are, roughly six weeks later, and the Marriott website still appears to be blocked. Mistakes happen, but the more educated your marketing and web teams are to global and local regulatory and cultural issues, the fewer of these mistakes you will make.
I’ve found over the years that it often helps to highlight the more common mistakes that organizations have made to help other organizations sidestep them. This report is included with the 2018 Web Globalization Report Card.
I’m excited to announce the publication of The 2018 Web Globalization Report Card. This is the most ambitious report I’ve written so far and it sheds light on a number of new and established best practices in website globalization.
First, here are the top-scoring websites from the report:
For regular readers of this blog, you’ll notice that Google was unseated this year by Wikipedia. Wikipedia, with support for an amazing 298 languages, made a positive improvement to global navigation over the past year that pushed it into the top spot. And Wikipedia, due to the fact that it is completely user-supported, indicates that there is great demand for languages on the Internet — and very few companies have yet responded in kind.
Google could still stand to improve in global navigation, as could Facebook.
Other highlights from the top 25 list include:
Consumer goods companies such as Pampers and Nestlé are a positive sign that non-tech companies are making positive strides in improving their website globalization skills.
As a group, the top 25 websites support an average of more than 80 languages (up from 54 last year); but note that we added a few websites that made a big impact on that average.
Luxury brands such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren continue to lag in web globalization — from poor support for languages to inadequate localization.
The average number of languages supported by all 150 global brands is now 32.
The data underlying the Report Card is based on studying the leading global brands and world’s largest companies — 150 companies across more than 20 industry sectors. I began tracking many of the companies included in this report more than a decade ago and am happy to share insights into what works and what doesn’t.
I’ll have much more to share in the weeks and months ahead. If you have any questions about the report, please let me know.
Congratulations to the top 25 companies and to the people within these companies who have long championed web globalization.
The context of how you display this flag can make all the difference; for example, do you display the flag on a global gateway with text that reads Select Country or Select Country/Region?
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but Select Country could cost your company millions in lost revenues if China cracks down the way it recently cracked down on Marriott — whose website is currently taking a forced time out.
Now, as I’ve noted earlier, Marriott did not display the Taiwan flag on its global gateway; this problem stemmed from a customer questionnaire that referred to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries. I would also not be surprised if this questionnaire was created by a third-party vendor. But the reason how it happened isn’t that important now; what’s important is ensuring that these mistakes don’t repeat — or, better yet, never happen in the first place.
Marriott was not alone. Medtronic, Delta and Zara were forced to apologize for making variations of this mistake, which include referring to Taiwan as a country on the global gateway.
The apparent intensification of efforts to police how foreign businesses refer to Chinese-claimed territories – even if only in pull-down menus – underscores just how sensitive the issue of sovereignty has become in a China that is increasingly emboldened on the international stage.
The involvement of more than one Chinese authority in rebuking businesses across different industries suggested possible coordination at a high level of government.
So what should you do to avoid a similar fate?
If your global gateway is built around using flags, now is the time to leave them behind. I’ve written extensively about the many challenges and risks of using flags — on this blog, in many editions of the Report Card and in my newest book.
The rewards of using flags simply do not outweigh the risks.
And I’ve worked with a few dozens companies that have since redesigned their global gateways to be more geopolitically neutral. Another upside is that these resulting global gateways are typically more efficient — both in page display time as well as in maintenance.
But as I write this post I know a number of multinationals — all Fortune 100 — that currently display the Taiwan flag on their global gateways. And the context of a few of them most clearly send a Select Country message — which is a message no company wants to be sending right now.
If you need me to help you make the case for an immediate global gateway redesign and/or internal audit, contact me; I can bundle this in with the forthcoming 2018 Report Card.