Expanding your ecommerce business internationally is often the next big step for successful companies. After all, English is only the third most spoken language on Earth, running neck-and-neck with Spanish and Hindi. Theoretically, there are millions more consumers in the world who have access to your website but are unable to read it.

The process of taking a website and adjusting it for another culture is known as localization. It is a great deal more involved than translating the words out of English, however. Other cultures have their own standards for design, symbolism, layout and color, and understanding these differences is important to your website's success.

Deciding where to sell

Your first step to success in foreign markets is choosing the right countries. Ask yourself some important questions:

  • Is there a market for my product in this country?
  • Are there taxes or tariffs that make selling there impractical?
  • Are there cultural taboos that my product may violate?
  • Are there governmental restrictions on the Internet in place that may make it difficult for customers to reach my site?

Once you know where you want to sell, you have to choose your languages for that region. While this is often straightforward, there are many countries where the population speaks multiple languages. For instance, the Philippine people speak both Spanish and Tagalog, the Swiss are commonly fluent in both German and French, and China has seven major dialects and two separate, official written languages.

One solution is to offer customers a choice of languages when they first enter your website, using cookies to remember their choice. Giving customers options is a good way to start a relationship and makes them feel more comfortable.


At the most basic level, localization is translation, but this involves more than just changing the words. It is very tempting to use machine translation and hope that it gets "close enough." Machine translation, however, is notoriously unreliable. For instance, enter the phrase "Expect your package to arrive ten to fifteen days after completing your order" into Google Translate, translate it into Japanese then back into English and it comes out as: "Arrival from your package is completing your order after ten in the 15th." More importantly, even a perfect translation bot would be unable to translate idiom, nuance and social mores. Adapting your language to their culture is essential to building trust with visitors.

Professional translators are usually the only way to get high-quality copy for your website. A good translator understands the nuances of the original language and can properly contextualize them during translation.

There are many third-party companies who specialize in localization. While not cheap, it's ultimately worthwhile to cultivate a long-term partnership with localization houses. Adding new products, updating features, and writing blog posts are just a few ways you'll need fresh content for your localized site.


Successful localization begins at the design level. If you design your site with localization in mind, it will be a great deal easier to accommodate new languages and visual norms.

Some languages, such as German, take more space on the page than English. Others, especially Asian languages, use one or two characters where English uses an entire sentence. This can significantly impact your layout; to assess the impact, gauge how ecommerce websites appear in your target region and compare it to your current design.

Running localized websites means running additional copies of your current website. Localized versions can be created as a subfolder of your current site (mywebsite.com/french), a subdomain (french.mywebsite.com) or as an entirely new domain (mywebsite.fr). Whichever you choose, remember that your IT team now has to roll out new content and features to multiple sites, each with unique issues. Build additional development time into your project schedules to make sure that your localized sites get the same attention as your main.

More than language

There are a few practical considerations in localizing a website that are every bit as important as translation:

In the U.S., dates are written as Month – Day – Year. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, they are written as Day – Month – Year. Missing this small detail can lead to confusion with your customers as they misinterpret delivery dates, release dates or sale dates.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries to not adopt the metric system, making measurement conversion a step in nearly every localization effort.

On a standard U.S. calendar, the week begins on a Sunday. Local standards vary across the world - some beginning on Monday, others on Friday.

Convert all prices to the local currency, and keep a close eye on exchange rates to make sure your prices are competitive.

In addition, offer payment options familiar to locals. Paypal and major credit cards are prevalent in many countries, but not all. If appropriate to the culture, make available wire transfers, installment plans and country-specific banking services.

The search terms people use to find your website in English may be very different from those in other languages. Research popular queries in other countries and optimize your SEO accordingly.

While Google is an important SEO player, it is not necessarily the most popular search engine everywhere in the world - people in China and Russian prefer to use Baidu and Yandex respectively. Search engines operating in certain countries may have restrictions in place as well. Make sure you're not utilizing any banned keywords in these markets.

Another important consideration is making sure the proper version of your website is presented to users. Google, for instance, advises webmasters to clearly mark the language/region via HTML.

Local regulations
Regulations concerning privacy, customer support, taxes, terms of service and so forth vary widely across the globe. Some countries have steep regulations, so make sure you look into this before investing time and resources into localizing.

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