April 22, 2021

Challenges of localizing for e-commerce

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E-commerce retailers who want to localize their shop content often face special challenges when looking for localization providers. Here are some of the issues I’ve noticed that you might want to anticipate and discuss with your localization provider.

The first thing language service buyers (LSBs) need to know that not every language service provider (LSP) handles localization projects the same. Localization, first and foremost, is a software engineering job. UI strings need to be scoped and standardized before a translator ever sees the project, or you risk ending up with a pile of “spaghetti strings” in the target language.

Usually, somewhere between the LSP’s project manager and your web developers, there is room for a localization expert to manage these issues. Whether you hire your own localization manager or whether your LSP provides a dedicated localization engineer for your company depends on several business factors, but rest assured that it’s a worthwhile investment.

Here are some real-life examples of issues that occur when generic translation agencies handle localization projects:

No project-specific or client-specific instructions

Linguists often receive generic instructions from LSPs, such as “make it sound natural” or “report all potential issues in this Excel sheet.” This shows that the LSP isn’t really immersed in the project and doesn’t know the client.

Let’s say you have item titles that follow a certain syntax in the source language, such as “Herren Freizeitschuhe Nubuk Weiß” in German, so the order is gender + item + material + color. Now there probably is a reason for this rigid order.

If you don’t standardize this syntax for each target language and have multiple translators on the project, you are guaranteed to get all kinds of different target versions, such as “men’s casual shoes white nubuk leather” or “Sneakers Men Casual White Leather” or “casual shoes for men made from white nubuk leather”. The translation memory (TM) will be full of conflicting information and propagate chaos instead of standardization.

In short, if someone doesn’t standardize word order, capitalization and grammar, your shop is going to look like a mess in the target language, even if you invested this effort in the source version. This is not a problem you can fix by referring to an all-purpose style guide.

Poor segmentation

Clients risk spending large amounts on segments that don’t require translation, such as proper names, or re-translating 100% matches due to poor segmentation.

For example, good computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools allow you to define item IDs (such as “ABC12345”) as non-translatable, but project managers may lack the knowledge or time to make full use of these features.

Most numbers that are not units or dates do not require translation. In projects with thousands of such IDs and multiple target languages, you can imagine the financial impact. Ask your LSP if they have a strategy for this.

Improper scoping

I’ve worked on projects where clients paid to translate thousands of names from Turkish to German. The names were usually actors and musicians from the shop item details page. Now you might wonder, how do you translate a name?

Someone had the idea of removing all language-specific characters, so “Barış Manço” would be “Baris Manco”, “Erdoğan” would be “Erdogan”. This is not just a waste of money, it’s not culturally sensitive. Unicode ensures that special characters can also be displayed on a German website, so there’s no need for this step. Furthermore, there are a few million Turkish speakers living in Germany, who might use the German website, and they’re already annoyed by people mispronouncing their names.

Let’s say the client paid 15 cents per word for thousands of names; you can imagine the financial loss, not even speaking of the impact on your reputation…

No terminology

The high keyword density in e-commerce means there is a lot more terminology work involved than when translating creative marketing content.

Defining the right terminology is hugely important for SEO but also for customer satisfaction. If your LSP does not provide a terminology expert for your target language, think twice. The linguists usually don’t have the authorization to edit your glossary, so their only references will be the translation memory and Google.

Does your target locale even have different words for “waterproof”, “water-repellent” and “water-resistant”? What’s the difference between a string, a belt and a sash? Or between a cold shoulder top and a shoulderless top? If you don’t define these terms before the translation begins, your results will be sub-optimal.

If your German online shop has 5 different translations for each item, customers just won’t find what they’re looking for. A good LSP sets aside the time and the budget for this consulting effort.

Do not expect the translators to send you feedback on these issues “on the fly” – as a language services buyer, you have to invest the effort to create a glossary with translations for each target locale.


Localization buyers often aren’t aware of how much preparation a good localization process requires. It’s not enough to just farm out your language files to an agency. Make sure that your LSP invests the time to set up your localization process before involving any linguists, or hire someone to manage this process at your company.

Make sure you define style requirements and terminology in great detail for every target locale. This may require additional consulting effort, but can save you from having to do the same work all over again.

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