Managing and Evolving a Global Presence

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When the Internet began to evolve into a medium for commerce in the 1990s, businesses gained access to a new international marketplace. A simple Web site could bring together buyers and sellers from all over the world. Some industry pundits predicted the Internet would break down the last barriers to a truly globalized market across nearly all industries.

Indeed, the rise of e-commerce did help to foster the globalization of many markets. However, despite certain gains globally, the majority of online buyers lived in the United States. In fact, the United States accounted for nearly 75 percent of global e-commerce in 2000. And while e-commerce become more commonplace in Western Europe and Japan in the early 2000s, online shopping had yet to take hold in many less industrialized parts of the world. The reasons ranged from weak economic conditions and the lack of necessary technology to cultures and traditions that place less emphasis on consumerism. Still, industry analysts predict e-commerce will continue to grow and reach new parts of the world, albeit at a slower pace than many had previously anticipated.


Opportunities via the Internet do exist for small businesses wanting to expand their borders. Globalization experts recommend that a business first "internationalize" its Web site and then localize versions of it for each culture the company plans to target. According to writer John Mulligan, internationalizing a site means preparing it for translation into different languages. If you have yet to design your site, it may be worthwhile to spend time and money up front to ensure that it will be able to handle multiple languages, even if you do not plan to expand internationally for several years. Creating an internationalized site from scratch is typically much less expensive than changing an existing site to handle international operations. If your site design is being done in-house, you will need to consider how formatting and wording will impact translation. If you are outsourcing, be sure to select a designer experienced in creating international sites.


Once your site is internationalized, you can turn your focus to localization, which means modifying your site to the extent that it "takes into consideration cultural and linguistic conventions, translation, changes in graphics, adaptation of documentation, re-sizing of dialog boxes, resolution of hot-key conflicts (hot keys are keys or key combinations that cause some function to occur in the computer), quality assurance of user interface, etc.—all geared to a specific country," says Mulligan. To gain an understanding of how other online companies have localized operations, you can visit their sites and look at how the pages are linked together and how similar or different the design is for each page targeting a different country.

Along with ensuring that your site will function in different countries around the world, you must also consider how your site will be received by different cultures. Many countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, use credit cards less frequently than the United States. If credit cards are the only type of payment your site accepts, you will reduce your prospects in certain areas dramatically. Also think about what kind of an impact various graphics, like flags and symbols, will have on potential customers. Even color can be an issue. Some cultures associate certain colors with things like death or war.


Selling merchandise abroad can also be complex from a legal standpoint. Even the most diligent efforts to understand laws related to things like taxes can leave a business owner uncertain, or simply unaware, of his or her legal obligations. For example, some countries do not allow online businesses to use "cookie" technology to track visitors, a common practice for Web-based operations in the United States. Other countries do not allow the sale of certain controversial products, an issue plaguing Yahoo!, which came under fire in the early 2000s for selling Nazi-related merchandise to customers in France. According to Global Cyberspace Jurisdictional Project chairman Thomas Vartanian, as quoted in a November 2001 issue of E-Commerce Times, "The problem is that there are an infinite number of laws that might be applicable to any given Web site, and most of them you don't even know about."


One option for small business owners wanting to localize their site for specific country is to hire a localization service, such as Accurate Translation or Excel Translations. Firms like these will not only help you to translate your Web site and modify it to make future translations easier, they will also help you ensure that your site appeals to the culture you are targeting. Many localization experts also understand the legal issues surrounding international sales from one country to the next and can help you avoid pitfalls. However, services like these, particularly translation, can be quite costly, so you should weigh the pros and cons of globalization before investing considerable resources in such an effort.


Dysart, J. W. "Going Global.", May 1, 2000. Available from

Mulligan, John. "Internationalize So You Can Localize Successfully.", May 19, 2000. Available from

——. "Prepare Your Site for Going Global.", June 20, 2000. Available from

Prather, Michelle. "Global Consumers May Be Too Scared to Buy From Your Site." Entrepreneur, August 2001. Available from

Vigoroso, Mark W. "E-tailers: Globalize with Caution." E-Commerce Times, November 2, 2001. Available from