In a struggling economy, it seems obvious that the best course of action for any business that wants to expand, or indeed survive, is to look at markets outside of their local area. Not only does export open up your product to a larger number of consumers, but it also protects you from the whim of a single currency's fluctuations.
So if we take it for granted that exporting is a sensible business strategy, and that the Internet is by far the most cost-effective method of international marketing and trade, then all that remains is to decide how exactly to target foreign language markets online.
It may seem like a sensible option prima facie to create websites targeted by language, rather than individual localized sites for each country; after all, English is the official or primary language of more than 50 countries, Spanish is the official language in 15 countries, and 29 countries are Francophone -- surely it makes a lot more sense to simply create one site for each language and be done with it?
Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
Optimizing Your Search Engine Results
For starters, it will be a considerable boost to your search engine rankings if your localized sites have a local top-level domain (TLD) -- such as .de or .fr -- and are hosted on service providers in the target country. So if a French web surfer searches for [librairie Paris” and you're running a online bookshop with a .fr TLD hosted in France, then you'll be much more likely to turn up in the French search results.
This isn't always possible or financially feasible, though, so Google also provides a geotargeting tool that allows you to set the location of your website in line with the relevance of its content. If your French online bookshop is hosted in China, you can now set your geolocation in Google Webmaster Tools as France, and you will be more likely to appear in specifically French web searches (but not searches conducted in French-speaking Africa or Canada). This also works if you have country or language specific subdomains off your main site, as you can geotarget individual subdomains to specific countries.
Differences in Dialects
Perhaps more important than the domain names, though, is the fact that not all languages are the same across countries. For instance, think of the list of differences between U.K. and U.S. English -- everything from whether to use an "s" or a "z," or if there's a "u" in color, to whether pants are worn on the outside, and whether "tabling a motion" means you're proposing it for, or removing it from, consideration.
It's not only English that can change dramatically between countries.
The Spanish spoken in Spain is vastly different from Latin American Spanish, and then there are the differences in dialects of Latin American Spanish between, say, Mexico, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. Not to mention that in Spain you can choose between four recognized regional languages (Aranese, Basque, Catalan/Valencian, and Galician) depending on which region of the country you're focusing on.
And that's not even bringing in the regional differences between Chinese dialects, or the French spoken in France and that spoken in Quebec, or in Francophone African nations.
Besides the differences between regional dialects of international languages, there are also the cultural differences between countries to consider, in both your manner of writing marketing copy and also your way of approaching the sales process (do your customers prefer buying items on a individual basis, or do they like value bundle packs?).
For instance, making reference to chat show philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in your site for French Canada will likely draw a blank with your target audience. That's still better than referencing "poutine" on your French site, though -- people will likely think you've misspelled a curse word, which is embarrassing on more than one level.
Getting the right mix of appropriate tone and cultural reference is essential for creating a bond of trust with customers. You can't achieve that level of specificity with a website if you're trying to appeal to the inhabitants of more than 10 countries at once.
Therefore, your best option is to create localized sites for every country you wish to sell in. The next step after that is to optimize for the most popular search engine in each country, but that's a topic for discussion next month.