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Web Copywriting for International Markets

So your website is beautifully written, the keywords are all in place and everything seems just fine. But hang on, half or more of potential customers will probably never find you - and many of those that do could find your web copywriting baffling, unappealing or even offensive.

How come?

Well, it's not called the World Wide Web for nothing. Like any web, it can act as a trap for the unwary. And a web that stretches all across the world is going to contain a great many linguistic and cultural pitfalls.

To start with, there's really no such thing as Standard English. Standard American English, yes. Standard British English, of course. But for once, Oscar Wilde wasn't exaggerating when he said that we're two countries separated by a common language. And it can make a big difference to your web copywriting.

Here's an example. If you're selling a product that almost anyone anywhere in the world could want, like specialist jewelry, then you write your site with appropriate keywords - 'custom-made jewelry', 'handmade silver jewelry' or whatever. However, you should consider also doing those same keywords but spelling 'jewelry' as 'jewellery'. That way you won't miss out on more than half of the English speaking world - those who don't use American spellings.

But even if you're savvy about US and UK spelling, you'd be amazed at how many other potential differences there are out there. You can easily see this for yourself if you have a recent version of Microsoft Word on your computer.

Simply go to their language options (Click on Tools, then Language, then Set Language). they'll do a spelling and grammar check on your document in no fewer than eighteen different variants of English. They list everything from Australian English to Zimbabwean English. Not only do they have Caribbean English, they have Trinidad & Tobago English (those countries being but a tiny part of the Caribbean).

How on earth do you cover them all? The answer is that you don't. Not all of them. But if you're an American site it's worth remembering that between them, countries like the UK, India, South Africa, Australia and much of the Caribbean can add up to a great many potential customers. In numbers, at least, a lot more than those who live in the States. And that's not even counting Canada, where the words and phrases they use can at times baffle Americans and British alike.

Remember too that many, if not most, people learning English for the first time learn British English. So you could be missing a lot of searchers if you're not covering at least some of the main bases with your keywords. It's true that search engines are getting better at recognising different forms of the same word, but they still have a long way to go.

If you're serious about marketing across frontiers, it's also worth taking cultural differences into account on the web. Copywriting styles that go down a treat in New England can sink like a lead balloon in the old country. To oversimplify, Americans want to be sold to, but the British want to be seduced. We prefer reason, politeness and avoidance of excessive claims - factors that will probably leave the average American (or German) consumer cold.

But there's much more to it than that. In most western cultures, the individual is all; in others such as China, the community or group is much more important. In the same way, some cultures prefer predictability and order, others emphasise risk-taking. Your web copywriting will need to reflect that.

Humor can work in both the US and the UK, but in very different ways, so it's a tactic to be careful with. Note the American spelling of humor - in the UK, it's simply seen as an American spelling. But write it as 'humour' for an American audience and they'll most likely think it's a typo. Not good for your credibility if you're a British site trying to market across the Atlantic.

The same goes for common words like 'centre' and 'colour' and all those words which the Americans spell with a 'z' and the British spell with an 's' like economise, realise and sympathise. (And note that in a list of three items like that, the British don't put a comma after the 'and'.)

As for vocabulary, there are the well-known words like 'fanny', 'rubber' and 'bang' that will be innocuous in one country and potentially offensive in another. (As a young innocent travelling round the States many years ago, I once tried to cadge a cigarette by asking if I could bum a fag. Not a question I ever asked again.)

But many, many other words or phrases can have unintended effects. I remember reducing an American girlfriend to hysterics when I talked about 'paddling in the sea' (that's walking with your feet in the water, in case you were wondering). And just last summer I completely baffled the guy in a Canadian fishing tackle shop by forgetting where I was and asking for a wire trace. I meant metal leaders for lures; he thought I was doing covert surveillance.

Never mind regular words, just the sounds can differ. Take something as mundane as a dog bark. It's "woof woof", right? Yes, unless you're in Italy, where it's "bau-bau", or Austria where it's "wuff-wuff". And you've got to love Rumanian dogs: they go "ham-ham". It's the same with cats - there are at least half a dozen ways of spelling "meow", depending on the country.

Even the length of the text can catch you out. Take that beautiful piece of text that fits so well between those two pictures on your product page - if it's going to be translated into German or Norwegian, you're going to need up to a third more space.

In other words, there are innumerable hazards out there. And it's all worth considering if you're serious about marketing worldwide, and you have a webpage, a section or even a separate site for potential customers abroad that you want to optimize (or is that optimise?)

Peter Wise

About the author:

Peter Wise is a freelance advertising copywriter, website copywriter and Search Engine Optimization copywriter based in London, UK. He also writes direct mail, brochures, newsletter articles and press releases. If you're looking for a freelance UK copywriter, please call +44 (0) 7767 687524 or visit

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