Back in 2014, Common Sense Advisory, a research company that focuses on global business and commerce, published a paper on localization and its impact on sales around the world. Though the Internet skews heavily towards the English language, billions of people don’t know how to read it at all or well enough to make something out of the majority of online content. The starting point for the report was the assumption that companies would get more buyers if they localized their websites.

In order to make this case, Common Sense Advisory (CSA) surveyed 3,002 consumers from 10 different countries — Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Turkey. Each was represented by 300 people and chosen for their online economic value.

But what exactly were its findings?

Do you speak English?

The survey was conducted in respondents’ native languages. The first thing it asked was a self-assessment of consumers’ English competences. While CSA could have conducted tests to objectively determine this, one of the main things they were looking for was confidence in English, which is best represented subjectively. Almost half of the respondents spoke English with little to no problem, while 18% said they had insufficient knowledge and 10% had no knowledge of English at all.

English ability determines how long people stay on a website, and people who spent more time on a website were 1.3 times more likely to make a purchase. The primary reasons for making a purchase, regardless of English proficiency, were cost, selection, and quality, but this drops as a consumers’ English skills decrease.

CSA also found a substantial preference for content in a consumer’s native language. When people aren’t confident in their reading skills, they spend less time during their visits to English-language websites and they complete purchases at a much lower rate. People who are proficient in English are eight times more likely to buy at English-only sites.

In total, 55% of consumers prefer to buy exclusively in their native language and 53% are more at ease buying in their native language. Countries that most prefer to buy in their native language are France (61%), Turkey (61%), and Germany (58%). Countries most comfortable making purchases in English are Egypt (85%), Indonesia (78%), and China (78%), while those who are the least comfortable doing so are Japan (34%), France (42%), and Germany (43%).

To localize or not to localize

Ideally, companies should localize their whole website. But there are parts of it where native-language content matters most to customers. Post-sales support, user reviews, and navigation are the most important content to localize, according to respondents. 74% of them said they were more likely to make a second purchase if post-sales support was offered in their native language, and 50% would like navigation options in their mother tongue even when nothing else on the website is translated.

But the feature that matters most, across all levels of English ability, are user reviews: 72% of respondents want reviews in their native language above all else — including 54% of confident and 70% of good English speakers.

CSA found that price, payment, and performance were all more important to consumers than languages offered, although their tolerance for English-only content decreased proportionately to their language proficiency. Price is perhaps the biggest factor in buying decisions: 57% of respondents would rather pay less than have access to content in their own language.

As expected, global brands were less affected by a lack of localization. Two thirds of respondents prefer buying from a global brand without content in their own language than from a lesser-known brand with content in their native language.

Can’t read, won’t buy: a case for localization

Despite it being nearly six years old already, CSA’s report still stands as a reference on the importance of web content localization and its impact on business. But while its survey results are undeniably helpful for companies who are thinking of localizing their content, or already do so, it’s important to remember that tolerance for English-only websites is only going to go down as more parts of the world get internet access. The results were skewed by the fact that, at the time of the survey, people who were already online were more likely to be educated, wealthy, and young — all factors that weigh in on English proficiency. Localizing content would become exponentially important as more of the world’s population gains access to the internet.

So what has happened since 2014?

A 2017 report by Comtec Translations shows that Chinese is catching on as the Internet’s second most spoken language, with approximately 650 million speakers (English has 800 million speakers). Not only that, but over half of all Google searches are now made in a language other than English, meaning that a business with no localized content is missing out on reaching a significant amount of possible consumers.

China has, in fact, surpassed the US as the biggest e-commerce market, but there are other emerging markets to consider in regions such as Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Website localization is worth considering, at the very least of what is more important to customers — user reviews and post-sales support.

In addition, companies shouldn’t forget about how user experience differs from country to country. For example, Chinese products have a vastly different UX than American products. Cultural differences and the increasing use of mobile devices — especially in developing countries — will affect how people interact with products and websites.

It’s clear that content localization is very important for any company looking to do business internationally — specifically, to succeed internationally.

Localization, in fact, as of October 2018 features as the third leading method for online businesses to market their good internationally, with 40% of respondents mentioning it as a marketing strategy, right after international advertising (43%) and social media (50%).

So where should you start? We’ve written before about how to choose your first language to tackle, and it all comes down to your target market and overall strategy. Where are your ideal customers? Which countries and languages have the highest economic value online?

Consider how many countries each language is spoken in. For example, French is spoken in 31 countries, many of these in Africa. Africa is experiencing a huge boom in internet access and French will become more valuable for localization as this continues.

A good place to start is to look at your website analytics. Where are people visiting from? How are they using your site, and how often are they abandoning it without buying anything compared to other users? Talk to customers and potential customers who are located in foreign countries to see how they feel about your current content and if they have feedback or ideas on how to improve their experience with your product.

Overall this choice is no different than any other business decision. Look at the data, look at your goals, look at your target market, and talk to customers. If you approach the process with thoughtfulness and an open mind, you’ll have no problem.