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Global Web sites prove challenging

Computerworld

August 21, 2000 (IDG) -- In the U.S., the "shopping cart" icon for e-commerce makes perfect sense. But in Europe, many shoppers use baskets, not carts.

In the U.S., a Web site can use the OK hand gesture as an icon. But in Brazil, it means the same as the middle-finger gesture in the U.S.

Oops.

As some U.S.-based companies rush to set up global Web sites, they are struggling to handle multiple languages, comply with foreign trade laws and avoid cultural gaffes.

"Running a site in multiple languages is easier said than done," said a recent report by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. For example, many e-commerce software applications can't handle Asian languages, where alphabets of up to 6,000 characters require support for a universal character standard called Unicode.

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It's also tricky accommodating multiple currencies, international sales taxes, local holidays and foreign addresses. And shipping products overseas without considering customs regulations and tariffs can spell trouble.

"If you don't play by the rules, goods can sit - and sit and sit - at the border warehouse for a while," said Mary Lou Fox, chief operations officer at Silver Spring, Md.-based NextLinx Corp., which helps e-commerce firms comply with trade regulations.

Even savvy multinational companies can stumble over things such as forgetting about language dialects.

The international delivery company DHL Worldwide Express once used classic German on Web sites for customers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium.

"But Austria, Switzerland and parts of Belgium speak a different sort of German," said Colum Joyce, electronic-commerce strategy manager at DHL in Brussels.

Now DHL has local residents check the sites to make sure they make sense.

In another case, data transmissions would suddenly end for DHL customers entering an address with an umlaut - the two dots over certain vowels in German. It turned out that the umlaut was the ASCII representation for "end transmission," Joyce said. DHL fixed the problem with a filter that recognizes umlauts.

A Web site's colors need to be carefully considered, too. "When we were designing our first site, it was all white, and [then] we realized that white was the color of mourning in China. So it was something we couldn't possibly use," said Joyce, whose staff finally settled on a "very off-white."

DHL's central Web site directs visitors from 270 countries - from Albania to Zimbabwe - to the appropriate Web content. But that degree of globalization is unusual.

Forrester reported that 63 of the Fortune 100's Web sites are available only in English. Yet analysts agree that English will cease being the Web's dominant language in a few years.

By 2004, 50% of all online sales will occur outside the U.S., meaning that Web site globalization is moving from luxury to necessity, said Forrester analyst Eric Schmitt.

But it's still a daunting task. Besides the language, cultural and logistics issues, Web sites must comply with Europe's privacy laws, which restrict the collection of personal data. Other "gotchas" include advertising restrictions and consumer protection laws. For example, in Germany it's illegal to directly compare your product with a competitor's. Toys sold online to Swedish consumers may need to meet Swedish safety rules, and online pharmacies could be regulated by the international equivalents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Foreign labor practices are challenging, too. "In Europe, if you want to recruit people, they require a two- to three-month notice period before they can leave their company," said Joshua McCarter, vice president of international development at Autobytel.com Inc. in Irvine, Calif. Autobytel.com, which is expanding in Europe, Japan and Australia, has started a "knowledge database" about its globalization efforts "to help us avoid any of the implementation mistakes we may have made, as we go from country to country," McCarter said.

Autobytel has discovered that different cultures may require radically different business models for e-commerce. Online auctions for selling cars haven't been successful in the U.S., for example. "But in Holland, people have been buying at auctions for the last 500 years, and car auctions are successful," said McCarter.

Pioneer users say that staying abreast of new laws, avoiding offensive messages and managing global content is a never-ending process.

The biggest challenge at Amway Corp.'s Nutrilite.com unit, which sells vitamin and mineral supplements, is updating the content on its Web sites in 10 countries. "Once you launch a site in China, you just can't forget about it," said Neal Mercado, Nutrilite's program marketer in Ada, Mich.

Question of Content Control

Mercado said he would like to develop "a process where you can somehow automate the translations and the updates, especially where you control the sites from the U.S."

In fact, analysts say, a big political issue at many companies is whether Web development and content management should be centralized at headquarters or controlled locally in the individual countries.

DHL initially let local units run their own Web sites. But the company realized that it needed to take global responsibility for critical services such as package tracking to ensure that customers get a consistent presentation and level of service at all of its Web sites, according to Joyce.

DHL found that multitier, object-oriented applications - with presentation, business logic and database layers - made far more sense than the monolithic systems it created in the past. "[We had] huge stovepipes of applications. None of them talked to each other," Joyce said.

Each DHL site now has three layers of control: local offices, which take responsibility for their "screen real estate" and locally developed services; regional units that deal with trade regulations; and global headquarters, where the central staff makes sure all the sites adhere to companywide standards for service.

"We play hardball with people who don't respect [the standards]," Joyce said. "We impose an awful lot of discipline to ensure that they do not muck around or do anything that undermines the global service," because DHL once had some frustrating experiences with local actions.

"One of the problems that we found with the Web was that it gave people so much innovative capability at a local level that maintaining control became a problem for awhile," Joyce said.

"These are hard-learned lessons," he added. "There were a lot of ulcers and an awful lot of Pepto Bismol being drunk through this process."




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