Choosing the first few markets to localize your website for is relatively easy: look for the ones with the most obvious market potential. A U.S.-based company may start with U.S. Spanish and Canadian French and then expand into some of the larger European and Asian markets. A company that has some history as a global business, may already have a physical presence in those high-potential markets. Subsequent waves of expansion, however, create some trickier choices. Should your next market be Poland or Brazil? Maybe the Korea holds the most promise. The thing is that you just don't know true market potential until you try and it may take a while to realize whatever potential exists.
Tier 1: Highest Revenue
Tier 2: Fastest Growing
Tier 3: Everyone Else
Tier 3 represents the greatest strategic challenge. You want to have a good quality presence in as many markets as possible. After all, outside of your home market, every market starts out as a Tier 3. If you enter a market, you need to do it right with an effort that is worthy of your brand. You also need to commit to maintaining that site into the future, otherwise you will fall into the "time capsule syndrome" where your local market sites look like they were frozen in time ages ago. But you have limited resources and you don't want to divert spending away from markets where you are succeeding.
To get into as many markets as possible without breaking the bank, you need to manage your localized sites extremely efficiently. The best way to meet that challenge is to use a translation proxy in a pattern that I call "International Mini-Site."
When you use a translation proxy, untranslated content is going to show through in the source language. In an earlier post (Preventing Source Language Bleed-Through), I talked about preventing this from happening. But that assumes that you want to pay to translate everything into all of your languages — and your Tier 3 sites may not justify that expense (not yet, at least).
The international mini-site pattern is like the "international snapshot" pattern but, instead of translating the full site, you proxy a much smaller site that is designed to have just enough information to get traffic and build business. Brevity, efficiency, and quality are key themes here. The international site should be cleanly branded (adjusted for culture, of course), search engine optimized, and ruthlessly edited to remove content that has organically grown over the years on your main site. If your main site (with all of its press releases, careers section, case studies, etc.) is 1,000 pages, your international site could be as little as five pages. Just explain what business you are in, describe your products, and direct customers where to buy. I often see this pattern in conjunction with using a platform like Marketo for marketing campaign landing pages (which can also be translated with a proxy).
Once you have your international mini-site, you can easily manage your translation spend. You can make choices about whether to make a global edit that you will have to translate into all languages, or do some locale specific rewording to improve search result placement in a local market search. Most importantly, you can manage your Tier 1 and Tier 2 sites without worrying about the cost implications of having to translate new content into all of your Tier 3 languages.
Just because the international site is small, it doesn't mean it is not important and you don't have to manage it. On the contrary, you need to pay as much or more attention to it. Because you have less content to work with, every word needs to count. This is where many companies go wrong. They treat their international sites as redheaded stepchildren rather than strategic assets with potential to uncover new growth opportunities. By staying small, you can be more agile and responsive. You can focus more on each page to optimize the impression it gives. You might even find that your main sites would be better served by a major Spring Cleaning.