Jul 29, 2014 Nataly Kelly

At the end of May, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Internet expert Mary Meeker released her annual Internet trends report. As in years past, the report underscores the increasingly global nature of the Internet. Businesses now understand that by virtue of having a website that can be found by potential customers anywhere in the world, they are, by default, global companies. As organizations try to leverage the global opportunities presented by this realization, one aspect requiring closer consideration is the number of languages spoken by their rapidly broadening customer base.

How vast is the opportunity? Take a look at last year’s report for some perspective: Meeker noted in 2013 that nine of the top 10 global Internet properties were based in the United States. The list included, in order of ranking: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Amazon, Ask.com, Glam Media, and Apple. As of January 2013, these companies reported that 79 percent of their users were based outside of the United States. The only non-American company to make the list in 2013 was Tencent (China), which ranked #10 on the list. Fast forward to March 2014, and the picture has changed radically; only six American companies remain in the top 10. Apple has dropped off the list, along with Ask.com and Glam Media, and have been ousted by Alibaba (China), Baidu (China), and Sohu (China), all of which are slightly ahead of Amazon, which now occupies 10th place.

As a result of this shift, North American companies are now offering a wider range of choices to global customers. Over the past several years, we’ve noticed a strong upward trend in the volume of content that businesses are offering in other languages. In addition, the sheer number of languages they are translating into is steadily increasing. Our latest data on global content trends supports Meekers findings, including the following:

  • A full quarter of companies who offer translated content are doing so in an average of 15 or more languages, while some companies are translating content into as many as 60 languages.
  • 50 percent of companies who have utilized translation are doing so in at least six languages, which is double the number of languages they offered one year earlier.
  • 46 percent of all companies who translated content include French, Italian, German, and Spanish languages.
  • 62 percent are selecting Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, while 22 percent translate into all three.
  • The average volume of translated content grew by 88 percent in the past 12 months.

Meeker’s top three companies–Google, Microsoft, and Facebook–remain unchanged in their ranking from 2013 to 2014. It’s no coincidence that all three of these companies pay extremely close attention not only to geographic trends online, but also to language trends. Consider that the number of languages offered by Facebook represents 90 percent of the world’s population and 95 percent of people with access to the Internet. When Facebook launched its site in French, its number of users jumped from 1.4 million to 2.4 million in three months. After launching its Italian site, the number of users in Italy jumped from 375,000 to 933,000 in four months.

As more people look to participate in the Internet economy in various parts of the world, businesses must keep pace with the languages needed to reach potential new customers in order to grow and compete. Those companies that offer content in other languages will build and retain a strategic advantage over their competitors–just as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have done.

Nataly Kelly is vice president of marketing for Smartling, makers of cloud-based translation management software. Her latest book is Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. Follow her on Twitter: @natalykelly.