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Constructing a Globalized E–Commerce Site - INTRODUCTION, A SHORT TOUR OF E-COMMERCE SITES, A STANDARD SITE CONSTRUCTION METHODOLOGY

customers page language web

Tom S. Chan
Southern New Hampshire University, USA

INTRODUCTION

Traditional boundaries and marketplace definitions are fast becoming irrelevant due to globalization. According to recent statistics, there are approximately 208 million English speakers and 608 million non-English speakers online, and 64.2% of Web users speak a native language other than English (Global Reach, 2004). The world outside of English-speaking countries is obviously coming online fast. As with activities such as TV, radio and print, people surf in their own language. A single-language Web site simply could not provide good visibility and accessibility in this age of globalize Internet. In this article, we will focus on the approaches in the construction of an effective globalized e-commerce Web site.

A SHORT TOUR OF E-COMMERCE SITES

The 1990s was a period of spectacular growth in the United States (U.S.). The commercialization of the Internet spawned a new type of company without a storefront and who existed only in cyberspace. They became the darlings of the new economy, and traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have been scoffed off as part of the old economy. Of course, this irrational exuberance is hampered with a heavy dose of reality with the dot.com bust in 2000. Yet, the trends initiated by the dot.com start-ups; that is, conducting commerce electronically, are mimicked by traditional businesses. The Internet is a haven, and imperative for commerce. And, not only for business-to-consumer transactions; business-to-business applications are also becoming more popular.

While there are endless possibilities for products and services on the Internet, e-commerce sites can be classified into a few broad categories: brochure, content, account and transaction sites. Both brochure and content sites provide useful information for customers. A brochure site is an electronic version of a printed brochure. It provides information about the company and its products and services, where contents tend to be very static. A content site generates revenue by selling advertisement on the site. It attracts and maintains traffic by offering unique information, and content must be dynamic and updated regularly. An account site allows customers to manage their account; for example, make address changes. A transaction site enables customers to conduct business transactions; for example, ordering a product. Unlike brochure and content sites, security safeguards such as password validation and data encryption are mandatory. Typical e-commerce sites today are multidimensional. For example, a mutual fund company’s site provides company information and current market news, but it also allows customers to change account information and sell and buy funds.

A STANDARD SITE CONSTRUCTION METHODOLOGY

Over the past decade, e-commerce site development methodology has become standardized following the model of system development life cycle, with activities including planning, analysis, design, implementation and support. Launching a business on the Internet requires careful planning and strategizing. Planning requires coming up with a vision and a business plan, defining target audiences and setting both short- and long-range goals. Analysis means defining requirements and exploring and understanding the problem domain to determine the site’s purpose and functionality. Design requires selecting hardware and software, and determining site structure, navigation, layout and security issues. Implementation means building the site and placing it on the Internet. Support requires maintaining the site, supporting its customers and conducting periodic upgrades to improve its performance and usability.

A successful globalize e-commerce site must strike a balance between the need for uniformity and accommodating variations. While most contents are identical (though they may be presented in different languages), some content inevitably varies and only is relevant for the locals. A site with a globalize reach must be adapted for both localization and optimization. While there are many issues to consider in the construction of an e-commerce site, our primary focus here deals with aspects particularly relevant to a globalize site, including issues of site specification, customer research and branding, site structure, navigation and search engine optimization.

Site Specification and Functionality

It is very easy to confuse an e-commerce site with the corporation. An inescapable truth, the corporation owns its Web site. The corporation also handles legal, marketing, public relationships, human resources and many other matters associated with running a business. It is important to understand that the site serves a business, and not the other way around (Miletsky, 2002). All corporations have a mission statement and associated strategies. A site exists to serve the corporation, and the site’s functionality should reflect this reality. Therefore, it is important to ask: How could the site help the corporation in the execution of its business plan?

Globalization may increase a corporation’s market and nurture opportunities, but it may not be for everyone. What role is the globalize e-commerce site playing? Could the corporation’s product or service have market potential in other countries? While globalization creates new opportunities, it also invites new competition. A corporation naturally has an idea of local competitors. Before globalizing, know the competitors in the international market. Because competition may vary from country to country, functions and priorities of the site need to adjust accordingly. For the same corporation and same product, approaches may need to vary for different localities. Given the inevitability of globalization, internationalizing the corporate e-commerce site may be a necessary defensive against competitors making inroads into one’s market.

Understand One’s Customers

With hundreds of thousands of e-commerce sites to visit, customers are faced with more choices than ever. The vast amount of information found on the Internet is daunting, not only to the shoppers but to corporations, as well. What do users want when they come to the site? Are they individual consumers, commercial businesses or government agencies? The clients access the site for information. But, do they perform sales online, and what about exchanges and returns? How are they able to perform these functions from the site? What are the implications for multicultural users? What technologies will be needed on the site to support these functions?

The cardinal rule in building a functional site is to understand its users. However, the same site operating in different countries may target different audiences. For example, teenagers in the U.S. may have more discretionary spending than their European or Asian counterparts. A sport sneaker site targeting teenagers in the U.S. may target adults in another country. The per capita income of a particular region will definitely affect sales potential and project feasibility. On the other hand, the same target in a different country may also have different needs. Site planners must consider the daily functions and preferences of the local customers and organize sites to support those functions (Red, 2002). For example, while Web sites are becoming major portals for information distribution, many Asian cultures value personal contact. It is important to provide contact phone numbers instead of business downloads for a personal touch, or it could be viewed as rude and impolite.

A large part of building a successful e-commerce site is being aware of the ways in which customers reach you, which pages are most popular, and what sticky features are most effective. Partnerships with other e-businesses can also help attract new customers. Local sites in different countries also need to be accessible to each other. How will the partner and local sites be linked together? For customers unfamiliar with the site, will they know what the corporation offers, and be able to find the things they need? When developing a local site, the original home site can only be used as a reference. The site must localize properly. A key activity is to inventory all information local customers need and want to access. Next, consider how they will move among the different types of information. Since the Web is not a linear vehicle, one should explore the many ways people might want to come in contact with the content in one’s site. This will help shape how content should be organized.

Branding for Consistency

Prior to venturing into site design, we must first discuss branding. A corporation’s identity speaks volumes. It lives and breathes in every place and every way the organization presents itself. A familiar and successful brand requires years of careful cultivation. Strong brands persist, and early presence in a field is a prime factor in strong brand establishment. Apart from being a relatively new venue, branding in e-commerce is critical, because customers have so much choice. They are bombarded by advertisements, and competitors are only one click away. In an environment of sensory overload, customers are far more dependent on brand loyalty when shopping and conducting business on the Internet (Tsiames & Siomkos, 2003).

A corporation, especially one with global reaches, must project an effective and consistent identity across all its Web sites and pages. Consistently maintained, the pages present a unified corporate image across markets and geographic regions, identifying different businesses that are part of the same organization, reinforcing the corporation’s collective attributes and the implied commitments to its employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders. Branding is particularly important for multinational corporations because of their vast size, geographic separation and local autonomy. The success or failure of site branding depends entirely on the effectiveness and uniformity of the organization, linkage of pages and presentation of its contents. Inevitably, there will always be creative tensions between uniformity imposed by the global mission and brand vs. adaptation towards local customers and competitors. Always aim at obtaining an effective balance between these two requirements.

Structuring a Multilingual Site

In general, it is not a good practice to intermix different language scripts on the same document, for aesthetic reasons. While some of us are bilingual, it is a rarity to be multilingual. A multilingual page means most customers will not be able to understand a large portion of the display. They will either get confused or annoyed quickly. Therefore, it is best to structure a multilingual site using mirror pages of different languages.

A Web site is a tree model, with each leaf representing a document or a branch linked to a set of documents. The home page forms the root index to each document or branch. A classic multilingual site structure contains indexes in various languages, branches for each language and a common directory. Figure 1 shows an example of a bilingual site that supports English and Chinese. The index of the main language (English) and mirrored indexes in a different language (Chinese) are stored in the root directory. Subdirectories “en” (English) and “zh” (Chinese) contain actual site contents and are identically structured, with each branch containing an introduction and branches for products and services. Naturally, there is also a “share” subdirectory for common files, such as corporate logo and background images (Texin & Savourel, 2002).

Files and directories in different languages can use a suffix or prefix as an identifier. However, multilingual standards for the Web are well established today; identifier selection can no longer be ad-lib. There should be a two-letter language code (ISO, 2002), followed by a two-letter country subcode (ISO, 2004) when needed, as defined by the International Organization for Standardization.

Naming and Localization

Directory and file names should be meaningful and consistent; translating names to different languages should be avoided. Under the structure in Figure 1, except the indexes, different names for the same file in different languages are not required. An index page would contain links—for example, a pull-down menu—to access an index of other languages. A major design requirement for any site is structure clarity and localization. This structure maximizes relative URLs, minimizing numbers and changes of links while still providing emphasis and localization for the individual language. It also allows for search engine optimization, a matter that will be discussed later.

A common technique in managing a multilingual site is to use cookies to remember language preferences and then generate the URL dynamically. With page names standardized, we can resolve links at run time. For example, a Chinese page has a suffix “_zh.” By examining the browser’s cookie, we know the customer visited the Chinese page in the last visit. Thus, we should forward the customer to the Chinese index page. We can make a script to append _zh to file name site Index to generate the destination URL. If, on the other hand, while the customer is reading the product page in Chinese he or she wishes to visit its English version, the URL can also be generated dynamically by substituting “/zh/” with “/en/” in the current URL string. Naturally, it would be easier with a multiple address schema that each language has its own domain name; for example, “www.abc.com” for the English site and “www.abc.zh” for the Chinese site. Unfortunately, multiple domain names involve extra cost, both in development and administration. As a practical matter, most sites have only one domain address (Chan, 2003).

Navigation for Inconsistency

The design for a welcome page is very tricky for a multilingual Web site. While each supported language has its own index, where should be a customer be redirected if we cannot determine a preference? A common design is to splash a greeting page and prompt customers for a selection. Since the consumer’s language is still undetermined, the page typically contains only images with minimal to no textual description, leading to a home page without a single word, just the corporate logo and image buttons. Not only is this design awkward from an aesthetic angle, it also leaves no content for a search engine to categorize. It is far better to identify a language group with the largest users, make that index the default home page, and provide links from that page to an index page of the other supported languages.

Consistency is a crucial aspect in navigation design. With a consistent structure, customers would not get confused while surfing the site (Lynch & Horton, 2001). Some sites provide mirror contents of its pages in different languages. A common navigational feature would be icons either in graphics, such as national flags, or foreign scripts. Customers can click on the link to view contents in another language. In a multilingual site, consistency becomes problematic because of content differences. For example, some contents available in English may have no meaning or do not apply to Chinese customers. Even when contents are identical, translation may not produce pages in a neat one-to-one map. A customer who comes from English pages to a Chinese page will likely be confused, encountering a more or less different structure. From a functional perspective, accessing mirrored content has very little utility. After all, except for academics or recreation, why would an English customer reading product descriptions in English want to read its counterpart in Chinese, or vise versa? Besides the index page, links to the mirrored content of another language should be discouraged, and consistent navigation should enforce only inside, not outside, a single language hierarchy structure.

Optimizing for Spiders

A necessary step for visibility is to submit the site to search engines. A search engine has three major components: spider, index and algorithm (Sullivan, 2004). The spider visits the site’s URL submitted by the corporation, reads it and follows links to other pages, generating an index to report to user queries. While search engine’s algorithm is a trade secret, the main rule involves location and frequency. The spider checks for keywords that appear in headers and the home page. The further away the link, the less search engines consider its importance. They assume that relevant words to the site will be mentioned close to the beginning. A search engine also analyzes how often keywords appear. Those with a higher frequency are deemed more relevant. If spiders do a poor job reading the site, identified keywords will not reflect its products and services. The site will probably not get visitors who are potential customers, or it may not get many hits at all.

A greeting splash page without text but with logo and buttons would, therefore, make a very poor choice as a home page for search engine submission. First, there are no keywords for the spider to follow. Second, relevant contents become one additional link away. Third, the spider would be unable to read most of the links and contents, as they are mostly in foreign scripts. Since leading search engines in each country is a local engine and indexing sites in the local language only, one should submit an index page of the local language and register it as a local dot com or, where possible, as a purely local domain. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, multiple domain names are expensive; a local dot com or local domain is rarely a practical alternative (Chan, 2004).

To optimize the site for search engines, concentrate mostly on the content directly linked to the home page—both internal and external—by working important keywords in both the content and link text as much as possible. Follow that up to a lesser extent with internal pages a few links away. The file name and page title should contain keywords, as most search engines look to them as an indication of content. Spamming a search engine is when a keyword is repeated over and over in an attempt to gain better relevance. Such practice should never be considered. If a site is considered spam, it may be banned from the search engine for life or, at the very least, ranking will be severely penalized. More information is available from the Notess.com (2004) Web site regarding the particular characteristics of popular search engines.

FUTURE TRENDS

In the global economy, increasing numbers of companies need their computing systems to support multiple languages. With the Windows XP release, Microsoft makes available 24 localized versions of Windows in addition to English (Microsoft, 2001). Users can display, input, edit and print documents in hundreds of languages. At the same time, the Internet is internationalizing, and its standards are modernizing. While the original Web is designed around the ISO Latin-1 character set, the modern system uses UTF-8, a standard designed for all computer platforms and all languages (Unicode, 2003). The HTML specification has also been extended to support globalize character set and multilingual contents (W3C, 1999). As more computer platforms and applications are configured to support local languages, proper adherence to a multilingual Web standard will be mandatory, even when building U.S.-only sites.

CONCLUSION

A successful globalize site design involves more than translating content from one language to another. It requires proper localization of requirement definition and internationalization of the site design for effective structure, navigation and indexing. As global exchanges become a common practice, proper implementation of a multilingual Web structure and standard is crucial for any e-commerce site. To that end, most operating systems, applications, Web editors and browsers today are configurable to support and construct Web sites that meet international standards. As the Internet becomes globalized and Web sites continue to be the major portal for interfacing with customers, a site constructed properly will empower an organization to reach audiences all over the world as easily as if they are living next door.

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