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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Helping the web become world wide
Google China home page, AFP/Getty
Language barriers have stymied some Western web firms
Although the web has permeated almost 250 nations, everywhere from Ascension Island to Zimbabwe, the language of online life is by no means as diverse.

Take, for instance, domain names such as www.bbc.co.uk. For a long time only Roman characters could be used in domains even if a nation's native language used none of those letters.

Now international domains are getting more widely used to help people get to grips with the web in their own language.

Core control

China has been at the forefront of the efforts to use international domain names. In 2006 it started seriously promoting three Chinese language domain names: gongsi (.com), wangluo (.net) and zhongguo (China).

"China has a long term vision for the project, they are very persistent and they know what they want," said Subramanian Subbiah, co-founder of I-DNS.net, who has worked with China on the native language domains.

The nation's aims have been boosted by the fact that during 2007 all the most popular web browsers will have support for the Chinese character set built in.

It is keen to drive adoption of the native language domains for very simple reasons, said Mr Subbiah.

"Chinese domain names will controlled by China," he said. "Other domains, like .com, are controlled by other countries and they do not like that."

The project seems to be working, he said, because native language domains are being snapped up three times faster by Chinese people than those using the Roman character set were.

China has even seen the start of cyber-squatting in which speculators buy up domains in the hope that they will prove lucrative in the future.

Research suggests that the names have captured the interest of younger Chinese net users who know few words of English.

Net use in Saudi Arabia, AP
Arabic nations are banding together on multilingual domains
This also helps to explain, said Mr Subbiah, why native web businesses such as Baidu are outperforming Western web behemoths such as Google.

"Google means nothing in the Chinese language," he said, "but Baidu does mean something in Chinese characters."

Analysis of who uses Google in China shows if people can spell it they use it. But, he said, the vast majority who can't spell it use the home-grown Baidu.

The success of China's work on international domains has prompted South Korea and many Arabic nations to push on with their own projects to create native language domains.

Travelling text

International domain names are all about helping one nation's citizens get more out of the web. The flipside of this, and potentially more important goal, is translating what people are saying to make the web a universal medium.

"The great thing about the internet is that it is a great leveller," said Dr Chris Boorman of translation firm SDL.

The common technology of the net, he said, should mean that any firm, be they based in Barnsley or Beijing, has the same chance to win a customer's business no matter where that person lives.

At first, he said, this just meant that Western firms which were quicker to get online could grab customers on other shores.

Mauritius, BBC
Travel firm GTA has a daily need to translate text
But increasingly, said Mr Boorman, those native web firms are flexing their muscle, taking on Western rivals and reaching out to new markets.

"Two years ago our China office spent most of its time translating English to Chinese," he said. "Now 50% of its business is Chinese to English."

The web has made everyone realise, said Mr Boorman, that almost all business is global business and that handling that, if only to keep control of brands, advertising and image, will become more important.

Travel firm GTA feels this problem more acutely than most as it operates in about 140 countries. The information it prepares about the villas, hotels and holiday homes it manages for travel firms has to be translated into 27 languages so it reaches as wide an audience as possible.

Every day, said Laurie Myers, a spokesperson for GTA, tens of thousands of words in that corpus of information needs changing and updating.

"It's an enormous volume of translation and text that has to be distributed, corrected and then re-distributed back to our sites," she said.

"Speed is important as well as reach," she said, "but what never seems to change is for the local booker to understand and relate to the text in his own language."

"This is not a matter of expanding," said Ms Myers "it is just about taking care of daily business."

Big push for Chinese net domains
03 Mar 06 |  Technology
Time for multilingual net domains
07 Jun 07 |  Technology
Unease over how the net is run
03 Apr 06 |  Technology
China and the break-up of the net
07 Mar 06 |  Technology
International net domains 'risky'
30 Oct 06 |  Technology
Domain names go global
10 Nov 00 |  Science/Nature

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