The Dangerous Seas of Machine Translation

Wes Trochlil pointed me to an article in which he was quoted that has suffered from round trip machine translation. The original article was in English, translated to something else and then back to English in this version. According to the article now, Wes has received his first naval commission, becoming Admiral of Effective Database Management.

Round trip machine translation such as this exaggerates the errors but shows very well why automated translation simply doesn’t cut it for critical content. It’s good enough to get a sense of what the text is about but if your content is important enough to translate for key audiences then it is important enough to do so with qualified human translators. They may be assisted by automated software but still add their critical value to the process.

If this topic is relevant to your web efforts, check out my article Web Design Implications for Translated Web Sites.

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NYT API – FTW!

I saw via Twitter last week (sorry, can’t remember who posted it!) this post about the New York Times Newswire API. In essence, the Times has published an interface with which you can access their latest headlines, including tons of meta data options to slice and dice your query.

This kind of API tends to result in a lot of experimentation and new value in presenting the content available via the system. Twitter’s API is a great example of this.

Pretty innovative stuff. If you are in the business of moving content this is something to check out.

Consumers and Association Web Sites

I’ve dealt with the question of how to address consumers online with association web sites for much of my career. In this context consumers typically means the customers/clients/patients of the association’s members.

I’m going to provide a few thoughts below on how to approach it but there is an important question to be answered first.

Your senior leadership and Board must define what your association hopes to achieve overall with the consumers in your members’ market. Buy more products or services? Support legislative changes? Appreciate your members’ contribution to society? (That last one is a tough one if they don’t on their own!)

If that high level strategy isn’t clear than you are going to spin your wheels online until it is. I often recommend not to bother with anything significant if you don’t have a solid organizational strategy for that audience.

Some other key questions to consider:

What outcomes do you want to achieve with consumer visitors?
What specific actions can consumers take on your web site that will support your overall goals for them? This can include everything from learning via content to taking a specific next action such as contacting one of your members.

How will you know that you have achieved them?
Identify specific measures for success in these efforts. What will let you know you are achieving your goals? Demand creation and branding efforts are notoriously hard to measure but many outcomes can have hard numbers to back them up. The example above of helping consumers to contact one of your members is easily measurable via their path through your site.

What is the value of achieving those outcomes?
The value of the outcomes should determine the budget for your online efforts. Assessing the value will help to avoid over or under investing. A simple concept but rarely done, in my experience.

Should we have one site for members and consumers or two?
This is the last thing to consider although it is often the first question people start with. My patented consultant answer is: it depends.

A key question is which brand you want the consumers to pick up on, the association’s or the members’? If the effort should be closely associated with the organization’s identity, then going with a single site for all with the consumer content wrapped in the association’s look and feel. If the brand of the organization is irrelevant or harmful to the effort, then a separate site and design may best support your goals. The ‘Got Milk’ campaign is a great example of the latter.

Answering these key questions can be a challenging task for even highly focused organizations. A large part of the value I provide to my clients is helping (and forcing, sometimes!) them to answer these and then plan an approach aligned with those strategic goals. Drop me a note if you would like to discuss your specific situation.

Should You Have a Web Committee?

An association executive on a list I belong to asked this week if organizations should have a web committee to determine the content, design and functionality of their site.

My answer? No.

The problem I have had with most web committees is that they often pursue solutions via consensus. Each individual comes to the committee with their agenda and the group then works out some compromise where no one gets everything and everyone gets something. This results in web sites where no one can find anything and that produce relatively low value for their organizations.

Every site must have defined, focused, outcomes that it is intended to create if it will generate significant value. Committees just can’t do this because of their structure.

What does work? Teams.

This isn’t just semantics. A team is a group of people who are pursuing a common goal. They will succeed or fail together and therefore have incentive to collaborate and endeavor toward common goals. This requires some extra effort and thought by senior management but, hey, that’s why they have that job!

Web committees, as they are usually constituted and governed, fail to produce value at the level that a focused team can achieve.

Donors Looking for Financial Transparency

Interesting article on the WSJ site today about the impact of Madoff on future donations. After Madoff, Donors Grow Wary of Giving:

That’s changing amid a distressed economy and the disturbing news that many high-profile nonprofits, including the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, Yeshiva University and Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation, were hurt by Mr. Madoff’s alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Now, an increasing number of donors are losing confidence in the ability of such groups to safeguard their money.

The article discusses how many donors are asking pointed questions about how the charity or foundation is investing its money before they agree to donate. No one wants their donation to go into a ponzi scheme or otherwise poorly managed funds.

The article also points out some information that should be easily found and available on charity web sites, including IRS filings, investment strategy and allocations, and others. Basically, provide as much information as you can in an easily accessed format in order to assuage nervous donors.

Guides, Not Straight Jackets

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard bemoan the limitations of draconian style and design guides for their corporate web site. It is a very common complaint and always happens to a certain extent. However, when the complaints are endemic it’s usually because the department that manages the site has determined their job is creating compliance rather than results.

The best web teams are those that focus on generating results above all else. Guides and standards can be very useful tools and I’ve helped to generate a bunch of them. However, they are a means to an end. Don’t let your guidelines become straight jackets that limit your ability to achieve fantastic results online.

Google Says Dynamic URLs OK (Must update my soapbox!)

Google posted to their official weblog today a bit of background on how they can process dynamic URLs. A dynamic URL is one that contains lots of junk that humans can’t read, including symbols. A LOT of system still create URLs like this, especially when the web page is created from data stored in a database.

It used to be common knowledge that URLs with natural language words in them did better in natural search results placement than dynamic URLs because Google would be better able to process them. It appears that is no longer operative. The key graph from the post today on that topic:

Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Dynamic URLs vs. static URLs:

While static URLs might have a slight advantage in terms of clickthrough rates because users can easily read the urls, the decision to use database-driven websites does not imply a significant disadvantage in terms of indexing and ranking. Providing search engines with dynamic URLs should be favored over hiding parameters to make them look static.

While there is still benefit to displaying static URLs for the human using your site it seems that, from Google’s perspective, it’s not worth doing just for search engine placement. Interesting!

Example of Cultural Localization in Print Media

An article in today’s NYT’s business section provides a great example of culturally localizing and delivering products with an existing global brand: Western Magazines Find a Receptive Audience in India.

Most of the new Western magazines being published in India are not really Western at all — they are written, photographed, edited and designed almost completely in India. Many are published under licensing agreements with the media company that owns the name. Even though they are all published in English, their content may be completely different from their American or British counterparts.

While the name may be familiar to an American reader, the flavor is distinctly Indian. Instead of Heloise’s syndicated household hints column, for example, Good Housekeeping runs “Ask Mrs. Singh.” This month, Mrs. Singh tackles how to keep your home fresh during the monsoons that sweep through India during the summer (rubber mats and fresh flowers help).

This very same approach should be considered with your online media as well. Are your existing products, services, marketing, content and design applicable to your desired international audiences? Are you offering articles about desert living to people currently being soaked by a monsoon? It is often tempting to just build a one-size fits all approach online but that rarely maximizes your results.

Emitting HTML

Any HTML markup generated by a web content management system should be customizable. This includes everything from the opening html tag to forms. If the system creates tags they should be customizable by the site publisher.

Why? This provides maximum flexibility to the site owner in deploying their desired template and overall design. Sounds like a no-brainer, huh?

You might be surprised how often this can be an issue, particularly with content management systems that are not very mature or have not been updated in a while. It creates many headaches in deploying web site designs and might even prevent the site owner from deploying the best possible design for their needs.

Add this to your list of key things to assess when reviewing web content management system.

Robots.txt Protocol Enhanced by Big Search Engine Companies

I learned today, via Search Tools, that Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have agreed to specific extensions to the robots.txt file protocol. All of their search engines will now honor additional directives. More info from Yahoo! and Google.

What is robots.txt some of you may be asking? It is a simple text file you can place on your web site to tell search engine spiders what parts of your site they should index and which they should ignore. It has been around for a long time and these are the first additions to the standard in at least a decade.