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The right recipe for a global Net feast

Uniscape's CEO hits upon a recipe for helping companies build and operate Web sites for overseas customers.

Steve Adams can't parler francais or hablar espanol, but he can make an e-commerce site work across multiple languages, currencies and continents.

Adams is CEO of Uniscape, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based software maker that has helped 140 companies build and operate Web sites for foreign customers.

Founded in 1996 by Russian and Taiwanese immigrants, Uniscape bills itself as an "e-business globalization solutions" provider. But it does far more interesting things than its jargon-filled description suggests.

In addition to providing translations for e-commerce clients trying to peddle products outside of their home country, Adams has made the company into a sort of cultural consultancy that spots cultural faux pas before they dent sales or tarnish reputations.

For example, one client was concerned because its Web site wasn't doing well in Mexico--despite the fact that the company included Mexican slang and other country-specific content on its Spanish-language site. Uniscape employees took one look at the site and caught the problem: The graphics were in the company's corporate colors of red and yellow, which are also the colors of Spain's national flag. Mexican visitors assumed the company was only interested in Spanish visitors and didn't spend their money on the site.

Adams, former senior vice president for worldwide marketing at Novell and a Tennessee native who still talks with a drawl after 15 years in the Silicon Valley, sat down with CNET to talk about why global consumers aren't willing to tolerate cultural blunders and how globalization is changing the Internet.

Q: Getting past the "solutions enabling applications" verbiage, what does Uniscape do?
A: I think what we do is relatively simple. We take all of the business processes that are associated with globalizing your content and automate those business processes. We created an information highway, but for a lot of people they can't
get on the on-ramp, they don't know what the posted speed limits are, and
they can't read the advertising on the side of the road. The interesting thing is that here is a mission-critical area and it's entirely a manual process for almost every Global 2000 company. It's one of those last bastions that need to be automated, so we've developed a software platform to automate them.

Are you a one-stop shop for a company that wants to sell products online in another country? Do you eliminate the need for translators, local sales teams, global purchasing managers and those kinds of people?
Not at all...I draw parallels to Siebel Systems. With sales force systems, Tom Siebel didn't replace salespeople in his model any more than we could replace legal reviewers or translators or technical reviewers. But Tom did automate all those business processes associated with sales, and essentially we did the same thing with globalizing content.

In previous economic downturns, it always seemed like one part of the world--Southeast Asia, for example, or Western Europe--stayed afloat while other regions struggled. But this time the slowdown seems more widespread. Why should a company spend to globalize now?
First, I don't think the other economies have reacted as drastically as ours, particularly from a purchase perspective. They're having their versions of Dow Jones and the Nasdaq imitate ours more and more, but they're still spending. And these things never get totally in cycle. There's always one economy that is slightly ahead of others, and you want to be sure you're there.

But even in a down U.S. economy it's imperative to globalize faster. So it's always going to matter what your total addressable market is. Even if your markets are shrinking, you would still want the largest possible market--that's our argument. The growth of users on the Web is still projected to be largest in Asia-Pacific, followed by Latin America and then Western Europe. If you're looking at a down economy for the areas, the growth is still in those places.

Obviously sites must be translated, but what else makes them adapted to global markets?
Translation is a key element but it's actually the smallest percentage of globalizing. The legal review process is a far bigger percentage. And I'll tell you why:

Here in the U.S., I can do a white paper and benchmark my product against those of my competitors, and I can publish that anywhere I want to in the U.S. In Germany, I'm not allowed to make those references to my competitors--it's actually against the law to do that. You can publish something on a U.S. Web site, and if I'm merely focused on translating it into German, I'm creating a legal dilemma.

Here's another example: There are companies in the U.S. that offer unconditional lifetime guarantees for their products. Again to use Germany, you can only offer 14-day guarantees there. You can't do the same things. So we do more than translate. We make sure you have automated all the business processes so that the content is localized--and that doesn't mean just translated. It needs to pass marketing, technical and legal review.

How can one company figure out all of the discrepancies and loopholes between the U.S. legal code and that of every other country? Do you have some kind of cultural and legal sensitivity department?
We have a team in the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific. We don't have a cultural sensitivity department. But I will tell you that, oddly enough, we are a very heterogeneous group. Inside our own company, we have over 15 different languages spoken. Because the majority of our employee base comes from non-English-speaking countries, we're pretty sensitive to what the issues are. I like to joke that because of my Southern accent and the two founders, who are from Russia and Taiwan, we have a senior management that is not fluent in English.

What's the worst-case scenario you've seen--the most embarrassingly botched globalization effort?
It's everything from very small things to really big things, like taking an advertising slogan like "Got Milk?" and seeing it translated in Mexico as "Are you lactating?" I mean, that's pretty bad.

In a Web environment, you have to be really careful because you only get one chance. Those customers are only a single click away from a competitor.

The "milk" thing is funny but I like to focus on the positive. We did a site for Amway, localizing their Korean site, and they immediately got a 30 percent increase in their traffic. Research says if you deliver a content site in a person's native language, they stay twice as long. More important, they're three times as likely to purchase. So you're increasing purchasing power pretty significantly.

Lots of studies say that the United States still dominates the Web in terms of the number of sites it has compared with other countries. From your perspective, how American is the Web?
I don't know how American it is, but I know it's very English-language dominated. Still, the majority of Web sites, 70-plus percent, are in English only. On the most embarrassingly botched globalization effort? The
advertising slogan The Global 1000 are still only 37 percent in multiple languages. It's surprising. The statistics of Internet users is growing dramatically, and there are now more non-English users than there are English users. However, when you look at the Web sites, it's very disproportionate.

Is it disproportionate because there are enough people who can speak enough English to navigate the Web? If so, why bother translating?
Yeah, most people on the Web can speak enough to get by. But that's also why in lots of retail sites customers drop out. They have a lack of confidence in their English-language skills, or they don't use credit cards like we do in the United States so they can't make the purchase. That's why companies need to get their Web sites localized.

How much impact will global consumers feel from the announcement this month that domain name keeper VeriSign will begin taking orders for hundreds of symbols and nearly two-dozen character sets from languages in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent?
It's going to make a difference. As long as people can use their own character set, their own currencies in a culturally sensitive site, people will purchase more. You have to expect that the more localized you get, the more success sites will have.

Personalization has been a focus for e-commerce in the past two years: When you log into my site, I have information about you so that I can market more effectively to you. My hit rate will go up and my revenue will go up. This has been demonstrated over and over, but we took personalization up to a degree and then we forgot to include language and currency and culture. We have to further extend a valid thesis that we've already proven: that personalization works.

With the potential for global e-commerce, will the entire world brim with Nikes and Coke and Levi's because everyone is buying the same stuff? Can the Web contribute to the homogeneity that is already pervading foreign cultures?
I believe it would be a great thing if everyone had access to the same stuff. But remember: It doesn't produce quite as much homogeneity as you think. McDonald's value proposition has been around value and quality service, but it's not identical everywhere you go. If you show up in Australia, for example, your Big Mac will have beets on it instead of pickles. In India, it's likely to be made of soy instead of hamburger. People will still tailor their products and services--we're just talking about access. Access will drive up homogeneity a little, but not much.

Beets vs. pickles doesn't seem like a grand distinction to me: Almost everywhere we go, there is a core of international conglomerates and fast-food chains similar to those in our hometowns. Are you concerned that the Web will make Paris less Parisian and Venice less Venetian and Tokyo less--what's the word, Tokyotian?
Look: We created an information highway, but for a lot of people they can't get on the on-ramp, they don't know what the posted speed limits are, and they can't read the advertising on the side of the road. It would be great if the Web could open up some of the Third World nations to democratize commerce.

What's one of biggest changes you've seen since you've been at Uniscape?
We think a lot about establishing Web sites from English to other languages, and increasingly in many instances it's going from other languages to English. If you operate a Web site in Germany, you know that you have to be in at least 20 other countries to get a large market. In the U.S., though, we've said, "Hey, the U.S. market alone will support our growth for a long time." That's changing, and it's about time.