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Language, translation and ecommerce: Breaking down traditions

Language, translation and ecommerce: Breaking down traditions [Photo: XiXinXing via iStock]
in Retail and Ecommerce

When building a successful ecommerce brand, companies the world over are looking to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to maximise their potential income. Reaching out to the highest number of people means being able to make the highest volume of sales and bringing in the best profits available.

However, when it comes to this increased appeal, what companies are looking to do is to improve their use of language through translation of their websites and content. Not every internet user speaks English; more than half, in fact, do not. It means ecommerce businesses need to choose translation as a key strategy for their growth. But doing this also means taking a new approach to the thought process that we have with regards to language.

When we think of the most common languages in the world, we think of those that have the widest global spread. According to Vistawide statistics, English, French and Spanish are spoken in 63 countries, 40 countries and 22 countries as official languages, so it would stand to reason that these are the dialects that any company looking to increase its global reach would have to translate into, regardless of the origin language.

But is this really the case? The internet’s spread across the world may have reached the vast majority of nations, but it doesn’t mean that its use of language has evolved in the same way as the offline traditions did, and as such, using the traditional most widespread languages in the world doesn’t necessarily represent the best strategy for online commerce.

The rise of online languages

Research is key to developing the correct, and most effective, ecommerce growth strategy for companies, and it requires ignoring traditions and breaking down commonly held beliefs about language statistics.

For those companies that fail to take the way the internet has evolved, completely separately from the offline world, into account, it would stand to reason that languages such as French and Spanish are those that they need to be translating into when looking to expand their reach as a business.

After all, with their wide geographic spread and the fact they have some 441 million and 385 million speakers worldwide respectively, it would be logical to assume that these would give the greatest reach in terms of online commerce. However, data collected about the online language shows that this is not actually the case, and companies that do choose this route without first researching what languages they should be targeting risk missing out on potentially huge audiences.

For example, with Spanish, although there are nearly half a billion Spanish speakers in the world, the number of people using the internet in Spanish numbers only around half of this total, according to Internet World Stats. The difference is even more extreme when it comes to French. French speakers in the world amount to almost 400 million, but research shows that there are less than 100 million internet users accessing French content online.

This shows how important it is not to rely on traditions when finding your target language for ecommerce as an expanding company. Breaking down these traditions and looking at those languages that have better reach or stronger proportional coverage online is a much healthier way to grow an online brand.

Chinese, for example, might not be a language that you think about when looking at global expansion, because although it’s the language with the most speakers in the world, it also has the narrowest reach, native in only one country mainly. However, online, it has the second-highest number of speakers (750 million), behind only English, making it an ideal language for those looking for large audiences away from their native country.

What’s most surprising, according to the Internet World Stats data, is that most companies have clearly missed this fact already. Although Chinese is second to only English in online reach, it accounts for just 2.1 per cent of online content, far below languages such as French, Spanish and German, all of which have much narrower online audiences.

Unlock New Markets Today

Companies looking to expand online need to be aware of issues such as these. It’s important not to translate into languages just because they are traditionally the biggest. Remember that the internet has evolved in a totally independent way, and being aware of how this has affected language use online is a vital tool for global growth.


There are a number of reasons why it matters that companies are choosing the right languages when they are trading online. From effective SEO and keyword strategy research to product descriptions, online assets, customer service, and aftercare, making sure that you’re reaching out to the right people in the right languages is absolutely imperative for growth.

For this reason, choosing the right online language is important for all ecommerce brands, and this means being au fait with internet evolution, not just language in general. Assuming that the most widely spread languages in the offline world also extend into the online world is a sure fire way to fail early doors, as the statistics show, and companies that are aware of the differences between online and offline languages, breaking down traditions, will be best placed to find success.

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