International Business: Websites can lose when prematurely assuming what global users want

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

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In general, we as customers want to be heard and want our opinions to matter. We cringe when people attempt to finish our sentences for us, and we bristle at sales representatives who push products on us without first finding out if we need them.

Unfortunately, some websites are angering users and customers by making overly broad assumptions about what users want to see and subsequently failing to facilitate easy customization.

“@Kotaku I’m in Japan but I’m an English speaker,” tweeted Dan, a frustrated man trying to access Gawker Media’s popular video game-focused blog site. “I want to read Kotaku.com NOT Kotaku.jp. How do I get around your geotargeting?”

Although Dan was typing Kotaku.com into his Web browser, the overly “helpful” website was redirecting him each time to Kotaku.jp because it used his IP address to approximate his location in Japan. Already annoyed that Kotaku wrongly assumed he was a Japanese speaker, the user was further irritated when finding it impossible to locate the button that would switch him back to the English site.

“That’s the thing that bothers me the most about that @Kotaku_JAPAN site,” continued Dan on Twitter amid some heated and colorful language. “There’s no change button.”

Looking at Kotaku.jp, I also could not find a language selector that would take anyone to the English site … at least for a couple minutes. Finally, amid dozens of brightly colored images and tightly packed text, I spotted the site’s two smallest icons about halfway down the page — a U.S. flag and a U.K. flag. An already frustrated user is unlikely to go to the same trouble I did to find them, and I would not blame anyone for giving up after mere seconds and leaving the page perturbed.

“What I hate most is going through the trouble of tweaking all my language settings in the browser only to have them ignored,” tweeted a sympathetic English speaker in Yokohama named Andrew.

From this one bad web user experience, which is repeated on many poorly globalized websites, companies can learn several practices that their webmasters can and should apply to their international website navigation options.

Ask permission; do not assume you know everything.

Enable easy language changes; navigation must be obvious to those who can not read it.

Notice and remember preferences; customers should not need to repeat themselves.

Ask permission: do not assume you know everything

Automatic redirection to a localized version of a website can be very helpful, but only when the website gets it right. When the website gets it wrong, users can quickly become exasperated and leave the website for a competitor.

For example, if I am located in France, Hotels.com may use geotargeting to redirect me to its French version without asking. However, at other times, the same site at least asks me to confirm preferences before redirecting me. When I visit Hoteles.com, the company’s Spanish version, it notices my U.S. location and browser language preference of English and invites me to, “See this page in English.” Similarly, if my browser language preference is set to Japanese, the same clear but unobtrusive banner at the top of the page invites me to “このページを 日本語 で見る.” If those offers do not help, I can close the banner or easily ignore it.

Admittedly, search giants like Google and Bing will automatically redirect users to country-specific versions of their search engines. However, even when Google and Bing guess wrong, that does not deny users that main functionality of being able to type any language into a search box and see results.

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