January 2015
By Donald A. DePalma

Image: © Cienpies Design/ 123rf.com

Don DePalma is the founder and Chief Strategy Officer at independent market research firm Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research). He is the author of the premier book on business globalization Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.




Protecting against rogue MT

Website visitors regularly use free machine translation to read content that’s not in their native language. Corporate translation buyers worry that this practice of using “rogue MT” – output generated by sites not under their company’s control – undermines their carefully crafted customer experience.

How common is this problem? CSA Research’s survey of 3,002 consumers in non-Anglophone countries found that most visitors sometimes use free MT when they visit English-language websites. That means that many international visitors who can’t read English click away from English-language websites to get free translation from Baidu, Bing, Google, or Yandex – and thereby break the continuity of the customer experience (CX). It’s not just English content that gets machine-translated: Web users around the world do the same thing, jumping to free MT when they cannot read what they encounter.

Companies around the world have been increasing their investment in building powerful online experiences as they craft a rich dialogue with prospects and customers. They first target their home market, then move on to other countries. CSA Research’s 2013 study of web globalization found that 60% of the world’s 2,787 most prominent websites support two or more languages, while the remainder is monolingual. Across the entire dataset, the average website supports five languages.

Of course, five languages will reach many more people than just one language. However, to maximize visibility, enterprises need to choose the right nine languages if they want reach 80% of the world’s most economically active online population. That means offering a website in English, Japanese, German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Arabic. But even then, this strategy excludes up to 20% of your pool of potential customers who speak other languages.

What happens when visitors who speak languages that you don’t support arrive at your website? When they do not find their language, their first action may be to abandon the site. But the survey found that many won’t give up without trying MT – 76% of consumers from non-English-speaking countries at least sometimes use MT to understand English (see Figure 1). Even 62% of those who are most confident in their English-language skills admit to using machine translation. They have lots of options: free online MT associated with search engines such as Baidu and Google; sites provided by MT developers such as Lucy and SYSTRAN; and MT built into the Chrome browser, Skype, and Twitter.

Figure 1: The Majority of Consumers Use Machine Translation
Source: “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” (February 2014), Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

Website visitors who use an MT-enabled browser such as Chrome often choose to stay on your site – even if the translation isn’t optimized to your brand voice and message. Those accessing your site through browsers without this translation capability must leave to find help elsewhere. Once they do, they break out of the brand dialogue that you’ve crafted for them. In both instances, we call the output “rogue MT” because what they see isn’t under your control.

Why is that a problem? These visitors read machine-translated content that doesn’t accurately reflect your company’s voice, terminology, or products. While the translation may seem okay, the MT output will be missing critical branding elements such as your tone and style. This usage concerns managers and executives responsible for outbound communication. In a 2013 MT survey, CSA Research asked 239 buyers of translation about the potential for free MT to misrepresent their brands – 63% were concerned or very concerned (see Figure 2). They worry that global customer experience will be derailed by a detour to a free MT website. Such rogue translations can be terminologically incorrect, badly branded, and even dangerous.

Figure 2: Buyers Show Concern for MT Misrepresenting Their Brands
Source: “Transformative Translation” (October 2013) Common Sense Advisory, Inc.  

However concerned they are, you cannot do much about rogue MT – unless you actually localize the customer experience. Changing human behavior is difficult, so the best way to keep visitors from using third-party MT – or finding a local-language alternative to your website – is to give them content to consume in their own language. Common Sense Advisory recommends two sets of actions to improve the stickiness of your website in global markets – and lessen or eliminate the use and impact of rogue MT.

The ideal – and obvious − solution to the rogue MT problem is to translate content throughout the customer experience. You can also improve content quality and collect data to help you make decisions about where to invest next:

  • Localize the customer experience for the most valuable markets. Human translation of all company content into all possible languages of potential visitors is an expensive solution – and not one that can be implemented within the confines of the average budget. The best alternative is to localize for the markets that matter the most to your business strategy. To reduce expenses, work with your favorite language service provider on a tiered approach and explore options such as post-edited MT.
  • Improve the quality of the original content. Make sites more accessible to non-native readers of English by removing dialect-specific idioms, colloquialisms, shibboleths, slang, and any cultural references. This effort will: 1) make content easier to understand for those with minimal English; 2) possibly result in better translation when visitors resort to rogue MT; and 3) yield better output if the company chooses to localize the customer experience using human translators.
  • Monitor traffic and ask for preferences. Keep track of where your visitors are coming from so that you can gauge the demand by locale – and invest accordingly. Once you know where their visits originate, you can offer translated landing pages where you ask them for their language preferences.

The ubiquity of free MT makes it an easy solution for web users who need language help. Companies can use the same free (or nearly free, when accessed through a website) software or its commercial equivalents to:

  1. Keep visitors on your CX track, even while deviating from your brand. The least costly solution is to offer a “translate this page” option using a widget or plug-in that calls MT software via an API. It returns machine-translated output within your CX context design. Beware! This approach depends on an untrained MT engine that is not tuned to your lexicon or style. However, your visitors’ preference for their own language should keep them moving forward. Why? Most respondents to our global consumer survey prefer content in their own language, even if the quality is low. This linguistic bias may cancel out any generic MT missteps.  
  2. Invest in an MT solution tailored to your brand. The more ambitious solution trains MT to your company’s voice and style – and takes control of your image and brand for audiences that prefer languages not supported by human translation. Work with your LSP or an MT specialist to train an appropriate engine. Focus first on high-impact CX areas such as user reviews, post-sales customer care, and discussion forums for these less critical locales.

Longer term, this trained MT may be able to carry more of the CX load. Ten percent of CSA Research’s MT survey respondents said they were already generating publishable quality from MT. Sixty-six percent said the results were “fair,” requiring post-editing before publication. Many MT developers are claiming higher levels of publishable output right out of the black box, with an even higher percentage suitable for post-editing. Of course, obtaining the best results will require formal translation asset management – mining parallel linguistic corpora, including translation memory, terminology databases, and post-editing output – that can be used to train and maintain the engines.

In the short term, translate-this-page widgets can fill in gaps in the customer experience, while PEMT increases output, speeds up turnaround times, and frees up funds for more translation work. The ideal is a seamless, consistent customer experience with no dead ends, but organizations should plan for speed bumps along the way.

The bottom line: Consumers and business buyers prefer content in their own language, so they frequently turn to free machine translation. When they do, they break the flow of the customer experience you’ve designed for them. If you want to engage that customer in your brand dialogue, it’s time to bring machine translation into your content strategy.