International Business Strategies

Let’s Get Lexical

Most times, one Spanish website can effectively serve every Spanish audience. But in some cases, subtle linguistic differences can greatly impact conversion and revenue.

Dominic Dithurbide's avatar
Dominic Dithurbide

October 22, 2015


We’ve reported extensively on the “Latin American lift” many U.S. companies experience when they launch Spanish-language websites for the U.S. Hispanic market. Indeed, with superior selection and prices, U.S. Spanish sites quickly become attractive gateways for Latin American shoppers. Companies usually see a rise in international traffic, engagement and sales.

Over the years, our research has dispelled the myth that individual Spanish-speaking markets require their own unique, country-specific websites to generate revenue. Sites that support international payment types and international despatch can win big, with little or no linguistic customizations for individual markets.

But this isn’t always the case.

Launching a website that "speaks the language" is a critical first step to building trust among customers. But this localisation must feel authentic. Time and again, studies have shown that shoppers bail when a site's verve or verbiage feels "foreign."

We'll explore two global markets (and languages) where that sense of foreignness has greatly affected customer engagement and conversion. These examples illustrate the need to engage-and listen to-excellent, market-savvy linguists and experts, when expanding online into new international markets.

A Case of Two ‘Spanishes’

One of our retail clients recently discovered how these market-specific nuances can impact customer trust. After launching a successful Spanish-language website for the Mexican market, the company wanted to expand into other markets, including Spain.

MotionPoint explained the differences between the linguistic "flavour" of Spanish we'd used for the retailer's Mexican site, and the variant Spaniards preferred. However, the retailer wanted to leverage its existing Translation Memory-a client-approved database of previously-translated words and phrases-for the endeavour.

At first glance, this was a smart play. It would save the company money and time, since the translations had already been created for the Mexican site.

However, despite leveraging MotionPoint's powerful optimisation technologies such as language preference detection, localised SEO and more, performance gaps soon emerged. Traffic and conversion were lower than its Mexican counterpart.

Why was it underperforming?

The problems hailed from the significant lexical differences between the two markets. "Lexical" refers to the elements of a language's vocabulary. Despite sharing identical grammatical structures, Spanish speakers around the world have developed their own region-specific lexical variations. This is common in other languages, too, and is a result of a country's cultural development.

However, these divergences in vocabulary can be so great and numerous that, depending on geographic region, a single concept or object can be represented by wildly different words, some understandable only to specific cultures. "Popcorn" is a good example of this in Spanish-we know of at least five different words for this single term that are only understood in particular countries!

Localising content to accommodate every linguistic variation would be expensive and complicated. We avoid doing this. Instead, we use a far more affordable, less complicated approach: a standard variation called Universal Spanish.

Universal Spanish avoids these sometimes confusing local words and phrases, opting instead for "region-neutral" vocabulary. This results in content that's easily understood by all Spanish speakers, regardless of their country of origin. (This is especially useful when engaging the U.S. Hispanic market, whose members hail from every Spanish-speaking nation.)

That’s why we originally translated our retail client’s Mexican website into Universal Spanish—it would reach a larger population with a single effort.

But recall that our client wanted to use those Universal Spanish translations for its Spain site. The problem: Universal Spanish doesn’t play well in Spain. European Spanish, known as Castellano (or Castilian Spanish) is preferred. Due to their significant linguistic differences, Castilian Spanish and variations of Latin American Spanish can sometimes seem like different languages altogether.

As we investigated, it became clear these lexical differences were alienating customers and breeding mistrust among Spaniards. We hypothesized that localising the Spain site with Castilian Spanish would increase traffic and conversion on the site.

We were right. After updating the Spanish site with Castilian translations, the site saw an astonishing traffic increase of 88%. (We measured the performance of the site for about six months prior to this "Spanish switch," and nine months after.) Other metrics improved, too. Returning visitors viewed 15% more pages on the site, per visit, after the switch. Email sign-ups increased 51%. And those who signed up returned to the site more often (up nearly 70%).

But since the client was an online retailer, an important question remained. Did the switch to Castilian Spanish bring in more revenue? Yes, and fast:

  • 181% increase in transactions
  • 33% increase in conversion rate
  • 33% increase in revenue

By swiftly identifying a linguistic disconnect-and optimising the site for actual customers-we helped our client engage its target market and build its business and profits.

A Case of Two ‘Englishes’

We often work with U.S. companies that want to expand into European online markets, including the UK. These corporations understand the need for localisation; after all, most English speakers can easily spot region-dependent spelling differences like colour and colour, and lexical differences such as wrench and spanner.

Companies that fail to leverage UK English localizations on their UK sites do so at their peril. These sites fail to generate as much traffic, engagement and conversion as those that do localize.

We recently examined a list of Top 10 UK e-commerce sites, analysing them for localisation characteristics such as spelling and terminology (shopping "cart" vs. "basket"), relevant product offerings, currency, and clothes sizes. The seven sites that were properly localised for UK shoppers ranked higher in traffic than those that weren't.

We were also able to quantify the financial lift that localisation can bring to a UK e-commerce site. Based on our data, medium-sized localised sites can perform twice as well in conversion rates, over larger companies. This is a remarkable feat, considering these larger sites receive 10 times more traffic.

The takeaway: It's uncommon, but sometimes international markets require region-specific localizations to overcome lexical challenges and meet consumer expectations. Companies that ignore these challenges may find themselves unwittingly alienating customers, which can impact the financial performance of a site. Resonant localizations improve customer relations, conversion rates, and revenue.

Last updated on October 22, 2015
Dominic Dithurbide's avatar

About Dominic Dithurbide

Dominic Dithurbide is a creative, goal-driven marketing leader that's dedicated his career to the translation industry. Dominic brings proficiency in global marketing, demand generation, and go-to-market strategies to MotionPoint's marketing team.

Dominic Dithurbide's avatar
Dominic Dithurbide

Marketing Manager


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