Want to join Russia´s (virtual) space project? – Now could be the right time

Last year was quite an eventful time for our happy little office. Amongst many light-hearted events and team-building exercises involving fancy-dressed bowling, trivia quizzes and soccer competitions, every now and then, we sat down and did some serious work (I hope my boss is not reading this :)). A major project in particular, one that involved the revision, translation and localisation of 38 different countries, kept us focused for great part of the year.

Many lessons were learnt – and documented –  on a variety of topics relating to languages and website readability and localisation. But if I was asked to highlight something from that year-long project it would be the amount of research, detail and ¨digital empathy¨required to achieve a website that accommodates to the expectations of audiences in countries like China, Japan. Korea and Russia.

I have previously written about some of the areas that need particular attention when creating a website for JapaneseChinese and Korean audiences. Russia, though, stood out for me because my lack of previous contact with the country and its language. So,here are some of our findings:

cyrillic typewriter at work

To start with, a caveat. Although Russia tends to conjure thoughts of vast territories and a large population in most people´s minds, this does not immediately translate into widespread Internet usage. Out of nearly 140 million people, approximately 60 million were  using the Internet in 2010, a percentage unlike Korea´s, for instance, where the number of web users is more than 81%.


What´s most remarkable about Russia though, is that in 2007 the number of persons using the Internet was less than 30 million. In a very short span, and  even though most Internet users still concentrate in major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, this growth rate could well place this nation within the next three to five years in the top five worldwide Internet markets  side by side Germany, Brazil, India, Japan, the US and China.

Even in the area of e-commerce and despite having quite a lot of catching up to do in terms of consumer credit – an expected consequence of decades of government-controlled availability of goods and disposable income – development has been fast and steady. According to com-Score Russia showed the highest growth in online retail penetration in Europe in 2011, a rate nearly twice as fast as that of Europe as a whole.

Search engines  

Yet ANother inDEX, or Yandex, is the dominant search media in Russia, with 61% market share traffic in 2011 shared with Google 25%, Mail.ru 7.1%, Rambler and Bing both with 1%. A full-service portal providing a variety of additional services to users (real-time search, email, mapping, comparison shopping, etc), Yandex generated nearly 11 billion page views per month already in 2010 for Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus.

But Yandex is crossing borders fast and it opened a US office in Boston, creating Yandex.com to allow searchers to query for sites in other Latin characters, mainly English.

And yet, when you approach Yandex for the first time, as is the case with many other local search engines, you need to take your Google hat off and begin taking into account the local specifics and the structural elements of the Russian language. So, I´m going to reiterate what I´ve already insisted on before:


Do NOT merely translate from English using an automatic translator. It does not work. Whether you simply want to put an ad in Yandex or whether your intentions are to establish a more in-depth presence, you need to get a native Russian speaker, preferably one with copywriting and SEO local knowledge.

And another thing. As silly as this reminder may sound to you: do NOT attempt to make your way into Russia by writing  your copy in English. As you can imagine, that does not work either as only about 5% of Russians speak English.

A good place to start is by recognising Moscow and St Petersburg as major civic, cultural and financial centres and realise the preferential treatment they receive from Russian search engines because of their prominence. So, you are more likely to get it right by geotargetting those two cities because the Internet service providers have more accurate data for them than for other parts of Russia.

Remember that Yandex rates sites using a system similar to Google´s page rank called a ¨citation index¨, which ranges information found from 0 to 150,000. The higher a website´s citation index, the more authority it has. Organic ranking in Yandex favours good-quality, rich content. So, if your aim is to reach Russian audiences, you need to remember that despite its expansion into other languages, Yandex needs to satisfy its native speaker searchers first and foremost. Have your content written in Russian and use a Russian country code top-level domain (.ru) in cyrillic characters and Yandex will recognise your site as relevant to its customers.

Unlike China, getting a Russian domain is simple. If you produce some form of  ID, almost any registrar will allow you to register .ru domains (both in latin and/or cyrillic characters). Getting your site indexed is not complex either. The Yandex webmaster tools can help you with that process as well as connect you to Yandex´s API and assist you with keyword search to gain more visibility in their index.

Russian language and cyrillic script

Regional linguistic and cultural differences compound to the already inherent difficulty of the Russian language for outsiders (for instance, the perplexing use of six grammatical cases). This means that search queries will likely be phrased differently in different regions. So, in order to get your keywords right, you need to have someone who understands regional vernacular, idiom and even spelling variations in different parts of Russia.

Because of the language barrier, getting visibility online is not easy. A good way is to associate yourself with online press release  services that include translations and distribution to major consumer, business and trade presses: Sovanet and Ivan-pr.com specialise in online copywriting, translating and public relations for the Russian market and they are worth your initial investment.

For those interested in crossing virtual borders, the Russian online market presents loads of opportunities. As crucial as it is to have a firm understanding of the role that cultural, linguistic and regional differences will play when establishing an online presence in Russia, don´t let the grammatical impossibility of the language and its alphabet discourage you. It might be a race well worth joining.

Is there a word in English to describe the frustration I feel before my wandering train of thought? – Defining culture-specific emotions

As always, I sit myself down in front of this old computer with the intention of start talking about A and somehow my train of thought just can’t stay in A – in a matter of seconds, it takes a life of its own and starts travelling from D to N, making a stopover in H and even going as far as Z. If I’m lucky, it brings me back to A but not without carrying a heavy load of scrambled thoughts and ideas that I then need to work very hard to make any sense of.

I get excited about many of them, I trash many others but ultimately, I get exasperated by this very testing, independent, self-absorbed entity in my brain that I try want to subdue by any means. And I wonder, is there a term for this emotion in the English language? Or in any other language for that matter? Is there a term that captures the frustration of a writer struggling to restrain a wandering, straying train of thought that refuses to stay in one and only one topic? There should be because I reckon this is an innate, genetically determined predisposition. At least in my case. I have always suffered from it, many of my teachers and supervisors had diagnosed it (and I thank them for their patience and support :))

Runaway Train of Thought

How do I call the emotion I experience when I can’t control my very irritating wandering train of thought?

Anyway… (that’s one of the words I use to try to bring my extremely tangential mind to A and remember where I wanted to start), the question here is whether the aggravation I feel in the case I explained above can be described in a single word in a particular language. Just like whether, as questioned by American essayist Pamela Haag in her article  Relationship words that are not translatable into English , is it possible to find words in the English language that describe emotions such as the Bantu word Ilunga – the willingness to forgive abuse the first time, tolerate it the second but never the third? Or, is it possible to find an English equivalent to the feeling expressed by the Polish words tgsknota (noun) and tgsknic‘ (verb)?.

Anna Wierzbicka’s work on defining emotions in different languages

Australian linguist Anna Wierzbicka has spent many years putting some thought into this and has come to the conclusion that although the above Polish terms have no simple, monolexemic English equivalents, it is possible to explain in English what the relevant feeling is, if one uses semantic primitives to decompose the complex Polish concept(s) into parts whose names do have simple English equivalents:

X tgskni do Y (“X feels ‘tgsknota’  to Y”)  =

X is far away from Y

X thinks of Y

X feels something good toward Y

X wants to be together with Y

X knows he or she cannot be together with Y

X feels something bad because of that.

In her 1986 essay “Human emotions – Universal or culture specific?,” Wierzbicka sees some potential similarities between the Polish tgskni and several English words such as homesickmisspine,  nostalgia, but maintains that they all differ from one another and from the Polish term as well (and I quote her directly just to illustrate the magnitude of her understanding of the different nuances of the terms):

“For example, if a teenage daughter leaves the family home and goes to study in a distant city, her Polish parents would usually tgsknic’, but one could not say that they were homesick for the daughter, that they felt nostalgia for her, and one would hardly say that they were pining  after her. One could say that they missed her, but miss implies much less than tgsknik. One could say to a friend, “We missed you at the meeting,” without wishing to imply that anything remotely similar to pain or suffering was involved; and yet tgsknit does imply something like pain or suffering (in fact, the best gloss I have come across is “the pain of distance”).  The word miss implies neither pain nor distance. For example, one can miss someone who has died (“My  grandmother died recently. You have no idea how much I miss her”).  But one would not use tgsknic’ in a case like this, because tgsknic’ implies a real separation in space. In this respect, tgsknic‘ is related to homesick. But of course homesick implies that the experiencer him or herself has gone far away from the target of the emotion.

The exact similarities and differences between tgsknic’ and homesick can be seen if one compares the explication of the former concept, given earlier with the explication  of the latter, given here:

X is homesick  =

X is far away from his or her home

X thinks of his or her home

X feels something good toward his or her home

X wants to be there

X knows he or she cannot be there at that time

X feels something bad because of that.

Pining differs from tgsknic‘ in its single-mindedness and its, so to speak, debilitating effect:

X is pining after Y  =

X is away from Y

X thinks of Y

X feels something good toward Y

X wants to be with Y

X knows that he or she cannot be with Y

X feels something bad because of that

X can’t think of anything else because of that.

Miss, as a form of emotion, can perhaps be explicated as follows:

X (Jane)  misses Y (Sally) =

Y is not with X

X thinks of Y

X would want to be with Y

X thinks that being with Y would cause him or her to feel something good.

Universal emotion terms?

It seems natural to assume, then, that each language will have it own set of emotion-words that are used to define those emotions that the members of the culture recognise as important to them. We can assume that these language-specific sets overlap and, perhaps, that the closer two cultures are, the greater the overlap between their respective sets of emotion words. But we can also assume that the more distant apart a culture is from another in space and conceptualisation, the harder it would be to share specific emotions. And that is certainly a challenged faced by translators and interpreters and professionals of intercultural communication.

But is it equally natural to assume that there may be a set of fundamental, universal, presumably innate human emotions shared by all regardless of culture-specific idiosyncracies?

According to Izard and Buechler (1980: 168), the fundamental emotions are

( 1)  interest,

(2) joy,

(3) surprise,

(4) sadness,

(5) anger,

(6) disgust,

(7) contempt,

(8) fear,

(9) shame/shyness,

(10) guilt.

I, like Anna Wierzbicka, am not happy when I see English-centred claims of this kind. The fact that the English language seems to be perfectly capable of encapsulating supposedly human universal emotions makes me feel quite uneasy. I look at the list and I have a pretty certain (although I’m in no way able to prove it) that quite a number of ethnic groups will not share the feeling behind the English terms contempt or disgust. Wierzbicka, in fact, explains that the Polish language does not have a word corresponding exactly to the English word disgust or that the Australian Aboriginal language Gidjingali does not seem to distinguish lexically fear from shame.

If Izard and Buechler were Polish or Gidjingali speakers, we might have a different list of “universal emotions”. Ethnocentric research is a risk we are accustomed to, we just need to be able to question it and challenge it when necessary. Producing a list of ten shared human emotions is a pretty big claim and certainly one that needs to be carefully considered.

This ridiculous train of thought of mine, though, is still frustrating the bejesus out of me and I have no word to call it. If you experience the same, in whatever language, and have a name for it, share it, please. 🙂

Creating a website for Chinese audiences – Optimising, linking and sharing

If I discouraged you with my earlier post on setting up a properly localised website in China, it wasn’t my intention. Although there is no denying that the language, cultural and bureaucratic barriers in China may seem to outweigh the final benefits for you and your business, the nature of the Chinese audience as it is now and as it is evolving towards the future, could very well be a deal breaker for your online business.


Because of the power of viral reaction in China.

Packed like Runners in a Subway Car

Similarly to many Asian countries, Chinese online users love highly interactive websites and web 2.0 functionality that allows them to directly participate in the site. As such, blogs, forums, comments, ratings and similar features are very popular. Besides, Chinese audiences tend to be very brand driven and focused viral campaigns seem to work particularly well in this vast country.

This could very well be result of the long term orientation ingrained in Chinese consciousness, also known in this society as 关系 (guānxì). The strength of the community and the past links that bind them together result in relationships where they invest a good deal of effort to ensure they remain harmonious and reciprocal for life. An emphasis on long-term relationships is key to the development of trust, another very important component in the development of a solid network.

Search Engine Optimisation
MKT China estimates that in the last quarter of 2010 there were 4.02 billion search queries in China of which local search engine Baidu had a market share of 56.6%. So, it is very important for your newly arrived business to consistently achieve high rankings in this search engine primarily, as well as in Google.com.hk and Yahoo.cn.

1. Keyword Research
If language limitations prevent you from doing the appropriate research to make sure you use the most effective keywords for your site in China, try to find a reputable Chinese online marketer to help you:
• define those keywords
• submit them to major international and Chinese search engines,
• submit them to relevant Chinese online business directories
• develop an efficient link strategy.

A good translator can also help you integrate your keywords into the copy as part of the translation process.

2. SEO Optimised copy
But remember that your marketing messaging needs to be equally compelling and persuasive and cause the initially intended emotive messaging. This time, however, the message needs to be conveyed in the Chinese language, to Chinese audiences. For this purpose, you would be better off engaging the assistance of a professional SEO copywriter to help you place the right keyword phrases in the right density in the right places. This person should be well informed about search engines guidelines in order to avoid penalties incurred by keyword stuffing and spamming. But equally important, he/she should deliver quality SEO copywriting that entices visitors to respond to the various Calls-to-Action proposed by the company.

Link and pay-per-click
A simple pay-per-click campaign, which works the same way in China as everywhere else, will help you gain an initial stronghold in the Chinese online market while your website is waiting submission in the local search engines. Your traffic will receive an early traffic boost and get important information on the performance and potential profitability of your website. Again, the advice and assistance of local online marketing experts will be invaluable to help you approach the main pay-per-click platforms in china (Baidu, Google, Soso.com, Sogou.com and Bing), because, although the process is fairly similar for English and Chinese pay-per-click campaigns, the language and cultural barriers could be far too overwhelming and slow if not halt your attempt altogether.

Remember that, ideally, your Chinese marketing campaign should not be ‘translated’ from English, but developed from scratch and supervised by linguistic and market experts. Use your successful English online marketing strategy simply as a reference point but try to develop a local presence that make logic to the Chinese audience. Besides, the focus of your website and pay per click campaign, when handled by capable local professional, can be tailored towards the products that will be most profitable in China. A good pay-per-click manager may be able to find less competitive keywords and niches to increase your ROI.

When choosing potential working partners in China, try to find somebody you can rely on, trust and communicate with.

Your share strategy in China
As impenetrable as it seems, the notorious Great Firewall of China, has succeeded at blocking some international high social media profile sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter but it has not managed to keep this vast community from diving into social networking. Today, more than 500 million Chinese citizens are online reviewing, complaining, raving and overall, sharing what’s there to share with whomever is there to share it with. Of all of these users, 30% log into at least one of their favourite social media sites and most of them spend an average of  2.7 hours online per day — second to only the Japanese.

Cleverly enough, Chinese nationals have found a way to imitate the international social networks that are not allowed in China: Renren and Kaixin001 replace Facebook and Weibo replaces Twitter.
Youku is a video hosting platform, which only vaguely enforces copyright laws, while Jiepang is the most popular location-based mobile app, with Foursquare-style checkins.

The much talked about potential for foreign entrepreneurs breaking into the massive Chinese online market is certainly there. But the entry strategy needs to be carefully planned, researched and respectful of local customs, language and culture.

If you have relevant experience and want to share with those who are thinking about entering China but not daring to give the first step, let us know your thoughts.



Creating a website for Chinese audiences – Cultural and copy aspects

China is a major economic power with a highly untapped business potential.

A tagline that gets repeated regularly by government departments, businesses and other interested parties. Companies look towards the Far East and see over 1.3 billion Chinese potential customers/users/readers/buyers actively using the Internet as a source of information, to purchase a large range of goods and services and to share that information on those goods and services with their extensive lists of contacts.

But why is it that a potential online market of such magnitude is still being approached with great caution and vigilance by foreign companies? Why are foreign investors slow to take an early advantage on a country with the world’s largest number of Internet users? Is it fear of the unknown? Inability to break the language and culture barriers? Too many restrictions?

In this post, I’d like to raise a few issues for you to consider if you are thinking about approaching this giant that is the Chinese online community.

1. Be aware of online registration procedures and filtering restrictions.
Start by registering a Chinese (.cn) domain name and find data hosting that is physically located in China. This is a good idea from an SEO point of view, to make sure that Chinese search engines looking for geographical location are able to find you easily, but also to stress your commitment to conduct legitimate business in China with Chinese nationals and. Registering a .cn name might not be an easy task, and in fact, you need to be very careful of possible scamers. Try finding an accredited company with a reputable history. They might also be able to get you an ICP licence, which is needed for your site to go live. And remember that once your site is up, you will be faced by the GFW (Great Firewall of China), established to filter information that the Chinese Government considers to be unsuitable for the public ( not exclusively pornographic material but any news item, services and products that could be sensitive or contradictory to the Chinese Governments view). So, take advice from your provider from the start.

Another good option is to hire a webmaster that is native to China, usually marketing themselves in freelancing websites. Offer a weekly or monthly rate to register and maintain your site and look after any other aspects of the registration process like calling customer and technical support, and taking care of whatever other localised business you need done.

2. Cultural aspects to consider in your UI design.
Whenever you create a new version of your site in a foreign market, it’s always important to take cultural aspects into consideration to make sure your intended message gets interpreted and displayed appropriately and successfully. This is particularly true in the case of a market like China. It’s easy to become complacent and simply opt for translating your original design (and copy) to Chinese. That will not work. You should not assume that a UI design which has shown to be effective in your country will also work in China (or in any country for that matter). It is very important that you do your research (or use someone with more knowledge in this field to do it for you) and rebuild the different features of your site accordingly to adapt to Chinese cultural practices and standards.

• Chinese typography: the Chinese script is composed of over 40,000 ideographs (although the average person will considered to have an acceptable degree of literacy when capable of reading around 2,000 characters), each of them made up of at least one stroke and a maximum of 60 strokes. Such complexity makes Chinese a much more difficult language to read than most Latin-based scripts.Chinese characters

Chinese characters are blockish and dense and they need to be presented in a font at least 12 px to ensure ease of read. To improve readability, Chinese sites tend to divide the space available into multiple smaller cells or content blocks, so that the length of each line of writing is shorter and easier for the mind to process. Also, in order to improve user experience, Chinese sites tend to increase spacing between lines or use font colours with lower saturation and contrast. It is also important to maintain distributed alignment (text aligned to left and right margins).

• Chinese site layout:
It’s a good idea to visit some of the more popular Chinese websites such as Rayli and Chinaren to get an idea of the preferred layout and distribution. But my advise is to take into consideration that the state of the Chinese internet connection will be improving in the very near future and this will most certainly mean that Chinese users’ browsing behaviour will change. Lots of sites are currently using flash adverts for various reasons, mainly to cash out as much profit as they can, but also because they want to give the impression to be enjoying a booming trade and don’t want to loose face (Mian Zi), a key factor is Chinese collective behaviour.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese users don’t enjoy simplicity and prefer a site overflowing with links and ads. Many are often seen complaining in Baidu and Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Google and Twitter, about the complexity of Chinese sites and the poor user experience they are forced to endure (in fact, many Chinese users apply a nifty little tool called 360 safeguard which allows them to filter and skip adverts).

It’s also very important to think about the range of colours used in your design. Colours do have different significance to visitors from different cultural backgrounds. It’s very easy to convey the wrong meaning by getting the colour choice wrong. Even the tone of the colours is important, as some Asian countries seem to prefer to use pastel cool tones like greens and blues as opposed to the brighter shades commonly used in Western sites.

I personally like to use Lush as a point of reference for successful localised layout and typography and colour localisation.

3. Cultural aspects to consider when copywriting and localising

  • Tone of voice:  Stop and think about your audience from a cultural and generational point of view before you embark on the task of translating (or writing) copy and localising. You need to discuss with your translator what’s the most appropriate tone of voice: If your main customer base is composed of generation X and Y, you need to find a way to get your message across to Chinese younger audiences avoiding certain formalisms that could simply contribute to making the sight sound outdated and unapproachable.Get a native speaker to review the final copy to pick on human errors or more subtle cultural blunders that may not have been picked up by the translator. But if you really want to cause the same emotive reaction you get from other markets from your Chinese audience, you might need to spend some more time and money employing someone who is able to transcreate, not merely translate. For more details on how transcreation works, visit my post:
  • Political and historical subtleties: Apart from the various and obvious restrictions imposed on the type of content broadcast in websites in China, you need to ensure your translator or writer are using the correct type of characters. Taiwan and Hong Kong prefer to use traditional Chinese, a much more complex version of the written language, while China introduced simplified characters in the 50s and 60 in an attempt to increase literacy. Make sure you are addressing Chinese people with simplified characters as using the traditional version could make it not only a lot harder to read for most people, but also completely inappropriate and ultimately a waste of your time and money.
  • Localisation of numerical data (weights and measures, dates, currency, fractions and time are often represented differently), pricing (make sure your prices reflect the local Chinese currency and taxes) and preferred payment methods. The most preferred online payment instrument in China currently is remittance (debit transfer), collection (credit transfer) and collection with acceptance (debit transfer) market. Also, its third party platform is highly competitive with 40 companies offering fairly similar services.
  • Specific legal regulations: You need to be aware of and compliant with the different privacy and antispam laws established by the Chinese government.
  •  Customer support: If you are an Ecommerce site you need to provide localised customer support for each country. Your online and offline support personnel must speak Mandarin, be available at the right hours, and be reached by local or low-cost phone numbers and email communications.

Next post, SEO and marketing the Chinese way.