In the past, the term "multinational company" was a synonym for the term "huge corporation." On the Web, this is not true. In fact, all sites are multinational, and the Internet gives the smallest company access to customers anywhere in the world.
A global Web presence presents three difficulties:
International usability problems due to the differences between people in different countries. I recently studied ways to link from a home page to various articles, including a case story of a famous company's experience in using some of our products. When this home page was tested in the U.S., users were interested in the case study article, but when we repeated the test abroad, users were much less interested in the same story. In this case the problem was not linguistic since the users were sufficiently proficient in English to understand the story. The problem was that the "famous" company was much less familiar overseas. Thus, the story changed from being "how famous-company does X" to "how company-you-never-heard-of does X" - much less interesting.
Different countries have different levels of Internet maturity:
It can be hard to roll out a comprehensive Web service globally when customers in different countries have vastly different expectations and different abilities to use the service. An advanced service would be appreciated - or even expected - in a country like Australia with a high level of Internet awareness. Yet the same service would be misguided as a mainstream offering in a country with less than one percent of the population on the Internet.
northern Europe and Australia/New Zealand are about a year behind the United States/Canada
middle Europe and the Asian tigers are about two years behind
southern Europe and the rest of the world are three or more years behind
Delivering the goods overseas. Sites that deal in pure information do not have this problem, but a physical product has to be transported to customers in other countries. This typically involves dealing with customs and other bureaucracies that are not geared to the efficiency standards assumed by the network economy. As an aside, there is some fear of the day when customs officials do understand the Internet and attempt to tax or regulate international movement of information. Let's hope that politicians realize that doing so would hurt the productiveness of the network economy and thus reduce the world economy by much more than the potential revenue stream they can recover.
Despite these problems, international reach is one of the greatest promises of the network economy. By connecting a vast pool of users in a single system, the Web allows even the most specialized need to be met. Residents of small countries (or remote parts of large countries) finally have the same range of choices and opportunity as those offered in major population centers.
Internet Maturity Growing in Many Countries
Most countries are slightly behind the U.S. on the Internet maturity curve. This does not mean that all American sites are better than all overseas sites. On the contrary, most U.S. sites are worthless, exactly because the U.S. is ahead and thus has more companies online. It seems to be a law of nature that everybody makes the same mistakes the first time they launch a website, and many American companies continue to waste millions of dollars on bloated designs that contradict all available usability studies. Even so, many of these companies recognize the error of their ways after a few years of low hit rates and irate user email and redesign their sites to be faster and more useful. Thus, since the U.S. has more companies that have been on the Web for a long time, it also has more decent sites.
Many overseas sites still suffer under beautiful, but slow, home pages that point to content-free pages and do not provide any real customer benefits to the users. This situation will not last for ever since most countries are moving up the Internet maturity curve rapidly. For example, I recently keynoted an award ceremony for best Danish Web design: a recurring theme in the acceptance speeches was how the winners had changed their site designs to download faster and to be user-centric rather than self-promoting.
There are also areas where other countries are ahead of the U.S. The Danish government is not afraid of crypto and is making good progress on a national digital signature scheme that can be used to authenticate citizens to all public authorities. Imagine the day when Americans can use a single digital signature to file both Federal and state tax returns on the Internet, pay any overdue taxes electronically, and also use the same signature to renew their car registration on the Department of Motor Vehicles' website. I bet Denmark gets there first.
Overseas websites are also often more mature in recognizing the international nature of the Web. At a Web usability conference in The Netherlands, a participant told me that his company saw the Web as an important competitive advantage. Their main competitor is a large American company that is usually mentioned as having a good website, but this site is very American in nature, and overseas' users invariably feel that they are visiting a foreign site when they go there. In contrast, this other company was deliberately building a site that would be completely international. It would be localized into many languages, and even in countries where it would not be feasible to offer a translation, the site would at least feel international and not American.
At InternetWorld Hong Kong it was striking that many of the larger booths represented content companies like Charles Schwab. Similar American trade shows are still dominated by technology exhibits which tend to focus the attention on the wrong issues in the development of the Internet. For example, push technology was a big craze in the U.S. last year and many companies wasted resources investigating this dead-end technology to the detriment of learning more about the content users actually need and want. A more diffident attitude toward the latest Web technology may help overseas sites advance in the areas that really count: good content and customer service.
Readers in many countries will need to be told that Charles Schwab is a financial services company. I deliberately wanted to be provocative by referring to it as a "content company" since most people think of it as a stockbroker. In the future, dealing in stocks will be almost purely a content business since the physical trades can be outsourced to a fulfillment house. What matters to the customer relationship will be the ability to show account information in a highly usable user interface and to link it to background information about specific stocks, financial education, and other content. In fact, a boutique broker will be able to provide the same low prices and efficient execution as the largest broker since both will be using the same backend. But the boutique can attract a loyal user base by hosting specialized content and optimizing its user interface for a certain type of customers.
See also my 19 design guidelines for supporting international users and the 230 tips and tricks for a better usability test (of which 14 tips relate specifically to international testing - but the remaining tips will help improve such tests as well).
I have posted several reader comments on this Alertbox, including complaints about the New York Times' treatment of international readers and analyses of the use of the Web to create virtual product offerings through fulfillment links.