"Basically, two-thirds of the world online audience within a few years will be non-English-speaking," said Preston Dodd, an analyst at Jupiter Communications Inc. in New York. For example, Jupiter predicted in a recent report that the number of Internet users in Latin America would grow from 9 million people today to 38 million within three years.
And if companies expect to do business outside the U.S., Dodd said, they need to offer support for foreign languages and cultures, because customers in other countries may not have patience for English-only sites much longer.
The expected shift away from English as far and away the dominant language on the Web presents businesses with more than just the challenge of translating content. Local customs and standard data formats, for example, make designing non-English Web sites tricky.
"Different countries and cultures use different lengths of characters in address lines, different forms of salutation, special characters and credit-card variances," according to a white paper on global e-commerce released last June by the Software and Information Industry Association in Washington.
Cinda Voegtli, president and CEO of ProjectConnections.com in Los Altos, California, said her Web-based project management consulting group is being asked more and more to provide non-English content and links to existing English-language Web sites. One key to having successful multilanguage sites, Voegtli said, is to have partners in other countries help produce the content.
In fact, that kind of arrangement was seen as a key driver behind Spanish Internet firm Terra Networks SA's agreement this month to buy Lycos Inc., a Waltham, Massachusetts-based Web portal firm, in a deal valued at $US12.5 billion.
Santa Clara, California-based Yahoo Inc. is also organized along those lines. Yahoo's sites are country-specific and are developed to abide by the unique laws of each country. In addition, the company's programmers live and work in the countries that their Web sites target, a company spokesman said.
Yahoo also programs its search engines for country-specific sites to account for idiomatic differences between countries in which variations of the same language are spoken. For example, in Spain, the word for computers is ordenadores. But in Mexico, the word is computadoras. "We're paying attention to the difference," said Marisa Maldonado, Yahoo's marketing manager for Latin America.