How to Make Your Website Ready for International Business


This series is commissioned by UPS.

One of the challenges of small businesses going global is the complexity of dealing with language and local requirements. However, if you do your homework, you can sell your products and services outside the U.S. even if your sales and marketing budget is small. One of the most cost effective ways to sell across borders is to use your website, either for eCommerce, or as an informational and lead generation site. Here are 4 key ways to ready your website for international business:

(1) Internationalize your website content

Buyers are much more likely to buy if a website is in their own language.  For the small business, providing website content in other languages can be a particular challenge because it’s costly to translate text into multiple languages.  One way to keep costs in control is to translate text or provide country-specific sites only for the country or countries where you sell the most.  Organizations like Lisa.org and Gala Global provide resources to help businesses localize their products and websites, including links to translation services.  Don’t forget Spanish speakers in the U.S. — more and more businesses are providing Spanish translation specifically for this market within our own borders.

And remember, too, that it’s more than just text to consider.  Take into account cultural differences, which may call for different graphics.  Consider voiceover translations or subtitles for business videos.

Finally, if you’re not able to afford translating your entire website into other languages, there are some other techniques to consider.  For instance, translate a single landing page in your site into key languages.  Or, consider writing the text of your site in Simplified English.  Simplified English is a standardized way of writing that reduces ambiguity. It makes English website copy easier for non-native English speakers to understand.

Simplified English also makes machine translations more accurate.  Thus, you could add links to your website to the Google translation tool to provide a rough translation in seconds.  Insert small clickable flag images to enable visitors to launch the translation tool in their language.  A machine translation is no substitute for a fluent human translation, but it is an alternative for startups on very low budgets.  (We previously used a Google translator plugin for WordPress here at Small Business Trends.)

(2) Calculate buyer’s costs and estimate shipping

Shipping internationally can take longer and cost more than domestic shipping.  On top of that, you have differences in currencies.  An even bigger challenge is figuring the “landed cost” of your product to the buyer.  Landed cost refers to the entire cost of a product when it arrives in the buyer’s country.   This is the cost including payment of tariffs and duties (taxes and fees) in the buyer’s country.  (This Export.gov video has a good explanation of landed costs.)  These taxes and fees vary by country, and can be quite complex.

Luckily today there are shipping management software packages that do the heavy lifting.  The software will automatically figure the costs and delivery times for overseas orders, giving a close estimate.  It also converts the currency for the buyer.   Large shipping carriers (such as UPS) provide this software, as do some other companies — this article in Internet Retailer gives more information.  By integrating this software into your website, you provide a seamless experience for the customer.

(3) Optimize your site and search marketing for international Web visitors

As cross-border selling grows, we’re seeing a growing specialty among search marketers:  optimizing websites for visitors from specific countries, and employing techniques to attract international visitors through search engines and search ads.  This can involve using country specific domain names, localizing spelling variations (“customized” versus “customised”),  using keywords in other languages, and geo-targeting Google AdWords to specific countries — to name a few techniques.  Spanish SEO is an example of this breed of search marketing firm.  Spanish SEO caters  to businesses in the U.S. that wish to reach Latinos and Hispanics online.

(4) Comply with government export regulations

For most goods and services, you do not need government approval to sell across international borders. However, there are notable exceptions.  For example, certain “defense” or “military” goods have restrictions on what can be sold and/or where it can be shipped outside the United States.  An export license may be required for them.  Agricultural, plant and food items are another category of goods that may have restrictions or special labeling requirements.  Start with the Business.gov Guide to Exporting/Importing Specific Products to identify  any requirements that apply to what you sell.

Address such restrictions on your website.  For instance, if you offer eCommerce or online sales, you’ll need to program your catalog and shopping cart to restrict sales of any item requiring an export license, or accept orders only in certain countries.  Even if you don’t sell directly online and your website is primarily informational, not transactional, consider posting a notice of any special exporting requirements or geographic restrictions on your site.

Another document worth reviewing is the OECD Guidelines for consumer protection (PDF download), applicable to 28 countries including the United States.  These Guidelines contain a handy checklist of best practices to self-assess  whether your business and website are consumer-friendly for international e-commerce. The Guidelines are fairly general, but contain good practices to follow even for domestic sales and domestic Web visitors.

For more information

Business.gov points you to more resources to help you export and sell internationally. Export.gov is another useful resource.

Laurel Delaney of GlobeTrade.com has released the full text of her book on exporting for small businesses on Google Books.  You can read Start and Run a Profitable Exporting Business online.  Although the book was published in the 1990s, according to Laurel the vast majority of it is still valid even today.  Her BorderBuster blog and newsletter is another excellent resource filled with tips.  Cindy King’s International Business Blog also provides helpful tips for small businesses.



Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.