This year promises to be a rollercoaster ride like no other. For anyone
with an internet businesses, two major factors are about to have a
major effect on their daily dealings.

One is monetary, one is regulatory. Both are equally important, and businesses should take time to understand them. Both will speed up the multilingual shift we are seeing in business – that is, the end of English as the language of business, and the beginning of a much more localised, cultural approach to customer relations.

The first change is the weakening of the pound. What was once a strong and powerful currency is now trading nearly at parity with the Euro. While bad news for British tourists, this may be fantastic news for British businesses that have the desire and capacity to target those Europeans who will now be more keen to unload their higher-valued currency for some discounted, high quality British goods.

Europeans can now get 90p for their Euro, a massive change from two years ago when they only received 77p. And sources like the Economist predict that the pound is set to decrease in value even further throughout the year.

The trick for UK businesses is learning how to target this ready-to-spend market. It’s not as simple as translating a website from English into the target country’s first language, says Greig Holbrook, MD of Oban Multilingual, an international search engine marketing agency. 

Content should be written from scratch in the target language, and should contain all the cultural inflections and unique qualities that make the country’s people unique. This is called localisation, and could become one of the more important buzzwords of 2009.

It is important to get inside the psyche of a culture, and truly understand what it is they are looking for on the web. This can be done through multilingual keyword research.

“Local keyword research,” stresses Greig, “is an excellent way to discover where the markets and demand for a companies products and services are.” 

If keyword research reveals a high search volume for your product or service in a particular country, it’s likely to be a profitable market.

Additionally, you need to understand the unique ways different cultures search. Online search behaviour changes from country to country. For example, some cultures are much more reliant on blogs and forums, while others prefer price comparison sites. This is reflected in how people search. And you’ll need to know a thing or two about local search engines, which can be far more popular than well-known giants like Google and Yahoo. Figuring out how and where people search is step one to a truly global approach to doing business online.

The second change is that the dotcom world as we know it is about to undergo a massive rehaul. Indeed, the word dotcom could even die out. ‘Dotcom’ refers to the last part of a website address, which is called a top-level domain (TLD). There are currently 273 registered character combination endings to websites, with only 37 Roman characters supported. The internet regulating body, ICANN, approved changes last year that will see a major change in these facts and figures.

Once the new rules are implemented, anyone will be able to apply for just about any TLD (think: .coke, .news, .fishfarming). Even more importantly, the TLD will not have to be in Latin script. This will open the door to Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese scripts, and more in domain names. An example would be .рф for the Russian Federation.

The cost of applying for a new TLD, unfortunately, is high. An application fee of £120,000 is the current rate. This represents ICANN’s (a non-profit organisation) estimation of its administration costs and risks. In addition, some fear bidding wars on more generic names like .books.

Under the current timescale, new TLDs could be approved as early as this summer. And the domain goldrush will start all over again.

At any rate, the introduction of these new TLDs will be a huge advantage to businesses targeting international customers whose native language contains non-Latin script. Having relevant keyphrases in your domain has long been considered one of the most relevant criteria for search engine algorithms.

With the acceptance of non-Latin script comes significant challenges and opportunities for companies, says Greig:

If companies can understand how people search in these other languages for their brand and relevant key-phrases, this will give them huge power to place themselves at the forefront of these particular searchers whose languages have not been represented in top level domains up till now.

A combination of both the weak pound and the allowance of non-latin script in TLDs creates exciting opportunities for UK businesses. It also represents a massive shift towards a more multilingual, multicultural internet world, where any customer will be able to search in their own language for their product of choice.

As with all new waves, web companies that realise this will be the first to optimise for it. And as such they will be the likely winners.

Find out more about multilingual and international search engine optimisation when Grieg Holbrook delivers an intensive one day seminar for Econsultancy on 25th February 2009 in London.