Worldly Web Design - Thinking global from the start

May 2010 heralded a major change in the way the world experiences the Web. For those of you in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Spain or any other country whose written language is formed by a Latin-based alphabet system, this change may have passed you by.

ICANN switched on a system that enables full URLs that contain no Latin characters. This opens the door for the likes of Arabic, Chinese, Thai and Hebrew scripts to be used entirely within a Web address, and includes the country code.

The ramifications are huge. It has been described as one of the most significant changes since the dawn of the modern Internet era.

Why would this be of interest to you? The Web has traditionally been very Western-centric and, more specifically, English-language centric. But with online populations growing at breakneck speed across the world, this latest development is another major step toward making the Web a genuine global entity.

When you consider that Asia is home to over 40 percent of the world's Internet population; China has almost a third more people online than the U.S.; and, crucially, 75 percent of Earth's overall population, the need for businesses to think international is becoming increasingly vital.

So how can Web designers and developers of the world help the cause? And what role can Internet professionals play in making the Web a truly global place?

Even if the plan at the start is to have a single website in English, there are a number of simple steps that can be taken to ensure a website is flexible and easily adaptable to the cultural and linguistic requirements of the global community.

Content is king - a well-worn adage in online marketing circles. But for Web designers it's a mantra worth repeating. All the bells and whistles in the world are no substitute for quality content - it is what ultimately makes visitors come back for more.

Unicode is a computing-industry standard designed to make text-representation consistent across the world's many different writing systems. The Unicode Consortium consists of the likes of Adobe Systems, Microsoft, Google and Apple and they work in the joint interest of creating international text-processing standards. Unicode covers 90 different scripts (written languages) and has a repertoire of over 100,000 different characters.

UTF-8 is a variable-length character encoding for Unicode and should be familiar to most developers. It's also compatible with most of the common browsers and platforms, which is why UTF-8 is a good option for those wishing to create a website that's easy to extend into other languages, such as Arabic or Chinese.

For PHP scripters, it's worth noting that PHP has string functions and multi-byte string functions; the latter of which supports characters that use more than byte (e.g. UTF-8 characters). This is crucial when manipulating strings with non-Latin characters.

If you're averse to PHP (or simply don't use it), at the very least it's worth verifying that your programming language of choice can manipulate multi-byte strings correctly.

Word length can vary greatly between languages. For example, German tends to use much longer words than the equivalent in English: Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung means "speed limit." Many Asian languages, such as Chinese and Korean, require much less space on a Web page than English.

When designing a website, it's crucial to bear this in mind. Don't hard-code widths to elements that hold text - words should be permitted to flow and expand as required. A solution here is to separate your content from the design. Cascading style sheets (CSS) enable table-free design and ultimately keeps content and design apart; which means each page won't need to be designed from scratch.

As a slight aside, any aspect of your website that facilitates user input (e.g. fields or forms) should not stipulate arbitrary (and usually unnecessary) character restrictions on the input.

So, you have high-speed broadband Internet on tap ... lucky you. But, believe it or not, many parts of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East still get by on connections of a couple of hundred of kbps - sometimes even less.

The point is, if you have lots of Flash animation and other bandwidth-sapping graphics, you may be preventing key parts of the world from accessing your pages. This is not to suggest developing text-only websites, only that you might want to develop two versions of your website to give users a choice - a simple HTML version and a flashy bells-and-whistles version.

It's easy to overlook this one. Culture is a dynamic built into our personas from a young age. Because of this, we often don't realize that what's funny, interesting or alluring to us may be offensive or off-putting to other cultures.

For this reason, it is best to avoid any potentially divisive images or material - this would include anything to do with religion, gender, nationality or age. What's simply an attractive sales model to you might be offensive to more conservative cultures.

Then there's the issue of color. In Europe and North America, red can denote danger, love, passion, excitement and Christmas (with green). In many Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures, red is synonymous with celebration, good luck, long life and purity.

Orange relates to courage or love in Japan, but for protestants in Ireland, it has religious connotations. And in conjunction with black, orange is also a color used for Halloween in the U.S.

In western cultures, pink is usually viewed as a feminine color, as is the case in East India. But in Japan, pink is a popular color with both genders.

There are many similar examples of how colors can hold different meanings across the world. And this should be factored into any website color scheme.

These are just some of the things you should consider when setting up a globally-appealing website. Adaptability and flexibility should be built into any website's architecture as you never know who you will want to target further down the line.

The Internet is global. But for the designers and developers of the world to go global, they need to think local.

About the Author: Christian Arno is founder of Lingo24, a global translation company that specializes in website localization.