Strategies for Globalizing Korean Websites

I wrote an article for my company’s December email newsletter sent to clients. The intended audience of the article was upper-management types and web managers in Korea corporations, who intend their websites to reach out to a global audience.

Due to some internal restructuring at my company which resulted in the company splitting into three independent corporate units, the newsletter never made it out. Which, in my mind, if for the better. It was my first article of any substance in Korean. If you want to torture yourself with my awful Korean penmanship, you can download the Korean PDF at your own peril. Here I present the translated English version:

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The World is Not Flat: Guidelines for planning websites that serve overseas audiences

In his 2005 book, The World is Flat, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that the Internet and Netscape contributed to the leveling of the global market playing field. The technology enabled industrialized countries and developing nations compete for the same markets. This allows us to order from Amazon.com from Korea, and find out the latest news about the recent unrest in Burma through our internet browsers.

This may be an oversimplification. It is true that the internet affords us many new market opportunities that had not existed. But simply because we have the same tools, that does not a level-playing field make. The internet is the new kid on the block when it come to communications tools, but it is still subject to the same cultural forces that have shaped regions for thousands of years.

To say that cultures are different is to state the obvious. Language alone acts as a barrier. A short trip to the States also reveals deeper differences in communication, cuisine, and culture. The internet with all its power will not be flattening these differences any time soon.

Parties in America are open

Parties in America are open

Parties in Korea are private

Parties in Korea are private

Let’s take the example of party culture. In the US, the host invites her friends and colleagues to her home, and people stand around in small groups sipping wine or beer, meandering from one group to another looking for more interesting people or topics of conversation. A big purpose of a party is to meet new people.

In Korea, on the other hand, a party usually consists of people who already know each other. They sit around a table and talk about topics that they already have some history sharing. No one switches seats. The purpose of the gathering is to reinforce already existing ties. Outsiders often feel left out.

This type of social behavior is evident also in social networks sites on the internet. The US has the gigantic MySpace which is a virtual space to meet new people. The ties are weak and often it’s about the quantity of friends than the quality. On Cyworld, the massively popular Korean social networking phenomenon, you create “il-cheon” or family ties with people you already know, reinforcing already strong ties, granting them deep access to your content.

google.com

Google

naver.com

Naver

Cultural differences are also evident when you look at browser start pages. Koreans usually have portal sites, such as Naver or Daum as their start pages, whereas many in the US have Google. This reveals that Americans tend to be more task-oriented in their approach to the internet.

It’s not a stretch to say that Korea has one of the most extreme internet cultures in the world. Internet experts marvel at the internet services and communications infrastructure available in Korea and see it as a test bed for the future internet landscape. However they also understand and caution that specific conditions that only exist in Korea that allow for these services to exist at all. These special conditions include exorbitantly fast internet access, heavy penetration of mobile communications, heavy concentration of the population to Seoul and other major cities, early adoption of technology, convergence of mobile and internet services, and the monopoly of internet traffic to a handful of portal sites.

Living in Korea, it’s easy to take these conditions for granted but any Korea company, who is planning to create a site outside Korea, should keep in mind that these conditions cannot be generalized to other place around the world.

So, as a Korea company, how does one approach creating a site for global market? How can it overcome preconceptions and plan a strategy that takes into account conditions outside Korea?

First off, it’s important to understand who you are targeting the site for. You have to conduct user research to get a general sense of the user culture and the user preferences in the region the site is intended for. Armed with this research, you can then start to define a user experience that is appropriate to the local conditions. Without knowledge of who the user is, it is easy to fall prey to designing a site that meets your average Korean’s needs but not the needs or the expectations of the actual users.

In addition to some basic user research, it is also important to understand the web environment of the region the site is intended for. As an example I list below some of the factors that need to be researched to build a successful site. I use the US as a comparator but the checklist applies to any country or region.

Issue Korea US Observations
Web User Behavior Portal-oriented #1 site: Naver Search-oriented #1 site: Google US users tend to be more goal-oriented when using the web.
High tolerance for dense information Example: Naver Prefer simple layout Example: Google US users are used to Google’s simple design, and prefer homepage designs that have focus and follow the KISS rule (Keep it simple, stupid)
Tolerance for animated elements on web pages Intolerant towards unsolicited animated elements US users react sensitively towards animated elements. In general they associate animations with advertising.
Prefer sophisticated, “cute” designs Example: Cyworld Korea Prefer simple, clean designs Example: Facebook As an extreme example, Cyworld failed in gaining greater acceptance in the US due to a lack for user research. User’s first impressions were that the site was targeting teen girls, when it was actually targeting college students.
Browser Environment Internet Explorer 6.0+ (Win) Internet Explorer 5.5+(Win), Safari 1.0+ (Mac), Firefox 1.0+ (Win / Mac) Users in the US use a whole variety of browsers and OS environments which need to be taken into consideration during design and testing.
Wide adoption of ActiveX ActiveX not used ActiveX is not a standard environment in the US.
Wide adoption of Flash Web Standards movement: HTML 4.0, XHTML1.0, CSS AJAX There is a strong movement to make browsers web standards compliant in the US. Flash has limited usage, with CSS and AJAX usage becoming more prevalent.
Internet Access Environment High penetration of super high-speed internet access Limited penetration of broadband access. What in the US is referred to as “broadband” internet is less than 10% of the speeds users in Korea are generally used to.

The key to success in building a website intended for an audience outside Korea is performing some simple research about the culture, users and web environment, and reflecting these in the site’s design.