Build-out and maintenance
Designing, building and maintaining one site is nearly always cheaper than managing multiple sites. You’ll likely be able to serve the world through one ecommerce platform (though you may need to replatform to accommodate all the localized features that you need). On the other hand, your existing ecommerce platform may make it easy and cost effective to launch multiple sites, sometimes on the same license. Even so, the design and buildout of localized sites carries cost. Though localized sites require separate content management, marketing campaigns, SEO and so on, localized teams are not always necessary. Many businesses still manage local sites through a central team, but this depends on your organizational structure, capabilities and budget.
Localized Features and Content
Sticking to one site for all countries doesn’t mean you can’t offer usability features that cater to international customers. “Internationalized” sites may allow customers to change currencies, switch language, and even show location-specific content and promotions using IP geolocation.
But localized sites have added benefits – they can accommodate the cultural differences that may exist between markets, for example, terminology. In the US, a vest is a sleeveless jacket (below, left). In the UK, it’s what North Americans would call a tank top (below, right).
A UK localized site can categorize “vests” in the way that’s more culturally relevant than the US site (category labels, search results). I’ve always been a fan of Google Trends for international keyword research. Other cultural differences include the way people like to navigate a site (horizontal vs. vertical menus), browser preferences and color symbolism. White may be the traditional wedding hue in the West, but is the color of death in many Eastern countries. The Knot’s Chinese site is themed in red, the color of good fortune in China.
Users in some geographies may also skew towards slower connection speeds. You can build “lite” versions of your site with less rich media with localized sites.
Localized sites allow you to offer localized assortment, which is advantageous for several reasons. Certain manufacturers may restrict the countries you are able to sell their lines to (for example, Amazon can’t ship the Flip camcorder outside the US). Nothing is more frustrating than finding out mid-checkout that the product is unable to be shipped to the destination address.
Some products are large and heavy, and shipping overseas is too expensive for both customer and seller. Other products can’t be shipped abroad for technological reasons (European hair dryers don’t work in US outlets and vice versa). Demand may also differ by geography. Even between the East and West coasts of the United States, there are differences in demand for fashion trends, household items, mortgage and banking products, et cetera. Offering a smaller assortment for localized markets can increase conversion – there’s less choice to weed throughand it’s easier to locate desirable products.
The number and quality of inbound links is important for search engine optimization. Having one website consolidates all the “link juice” which certainly helps you rank better in your primary market, and depending on competition from businesses abroad, may also give you a good ranking in the local engines (e.g. Google.co.au, Bing.fr). However, geographically targeting domains is arguably better for local search engines (arguably because you need to start link building from scratch). Best practice is to give each localized domain its own ccTLD (country code top level domain) such as yourstore.co.uk or yourstore.de. The ccTLD tells the search engine exactly which country you’re targeting. Host each domain in its target country for bonus points. Aside from higher rankings, ccTLDs can attract higher click through as the customer knows they will be visiting a site that can ship to them, show them their own currency, etc. As I've written previously, some of the largest brands in the world aren't targeting their localized sites properly in search engines. If you must use a subfolder or subdomain for your local sites (e.g. yoursite.com/canada or canada.yoursite.com), you can geotarget them through Google Webmaster Tools. But so far, Google’s the only search engine that allows you to do this. It won't help you on Bing. Another ranking factor is the age of the domain. Unfortunately, new domains start from scratch, while the established sites have an advantage.
Checkout and Payment
In some countries, credit cards and PayPal are not the preferred method of payment. Direct debits are more popular in countries like Germany, India and China. Some customers wish to pay by check, money order or COD. Showing all these payment methods on one site offers too much choice to customers who don’t want to use them (which can negatively impact conversion). We'll be discussing this topic in more detail in an upcoming Get Elastic post. Checkout flow best practices may not hold up in every market, either. Did you know that only 22% of Japanese online shoppers expect a “smooth and easy checkout process”? The Japanese place more value on the process than us “get me out of here fast” Westerners, so a one-page checkout flow may not perform better than multi-page flows in every market. Testing for these cultural preferences on localized sites is more efficient than on globalized sites, which may only allow you to run one experiment at a time.
So Which Is Better - One Site or Multiple?
Both options have pros and cons, which need to be weighed in light of your business’ unique position, goals and resources. If you’re not sure your new market(s) are going to drive a significant portion of your business, it’s safer to “internationalize” your main site first. (You can always launch geographic microsites down the road.) This means adding the features and functionality that attracts and serves international customers. It also means thinking hard about international usability. If you’re considering investment in localized sites, how do you know if the ROI of upside revenue will outweigh the cost of the added complexity? That’s just one of the key issues we’ll be addressing in our next webinar with Forrester’s Zia Daniell Wigder: Tapping into the International Online Consumer: What Every Enterprise Needs to Know About Going Global. Please join us Wednesday, October 27 at 9am PST / 12pm EST. Space is limited, so reserve your spot today.