Why are Sites Like Google and eBay so Ignorant? Or is it Arrogant?

Sheer frustration. I recently tried to register on eBay – and the user experience was ghastly.

The same when I tried to set up a Hangout on Google+ a few weeks ago.

Why do these (and other) big sites think they’re so clever by presenting me with a Chinese user interface just because my IP address indicates I’m in Hong Kong? Without an option to switch to English?

Are they so ignorant of global geography that they’re unaware that, although the majority of people in Hong Kong are Chinese, at least 7% of the residents here cannot read Chinese? And that the legal language is English?

Come oonnn.

A site like Google should always have language options available in a switcher because they’re appealing to a global market.

Plus, and I’m talking to you, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, believe it or not, English speaking nationals from the US and the UK do actually travel to Hong Kong. Really. I promise.

And you present them with Chinese-only interfaces as well.

Google even has an office in Hong Kong, so they should know better, but apparently not.

For a company that continually talks about improving the user’s online experience, Google’s complete inability to deal with language selection effectively is disgraceful. After all, it’s not rocket science.

And eBay is no better, as I discovered this evening.

I tried to register because a friend of mine (who also cannot read Chinese) wanted to register but couldn’t work their way through the mess. So they asked for my help.

As soon as I indicated my address is in Hong Kong eBay immediately presented me with a Chinese interface. This time there was, at least, an option for English, which I clicked.

Alas, the result was awful.

They tried to combine both languages on one screen and completely failed to translate important pop up messages, error messages or anything in a drop down menu.

So, although I could get through the main registration fields I had to guess at what the error messages and drop down menus meant.

Mostly I got them wrong. So I gave up. We both gave up.

And it looked awful – the screen was an absolute mess.

And now I’m talking to you, John Donahoe: this was someone trying to register so they could give you some money. Well, I know that it probably won’t sink your company, but that’s one bit of money you won’t be getting.

I get seriously frustrated at the crappy user experience sites like Google and eBay offer to English speakers who happen to travel or live abroad – and it’s not only Hong Kong.

I have non-Thai speaking friends in Bangkok, and I often travel there myself, and we all have exactly the same experience: everything is in Thai characters with no English option.

So, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and John Donahoe, this is not a difficult problem to fix – why are your companies incapable of fixing it? It is, after all, your core business.

If you’re serious about improving your users’ online experience you should probably demonstrate it on your own sites.

Yours in frustration,

Martin Malden.

PS: For all Internet Marketers, there’s a message here and it’s not about languages. I know you’ll have picked up on it. Unless you work for Google.

What do you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anna Nov 4, 2011 @ 10:37

    I know how you feel about this, I am with you and find it quite pathetic for huge companies to do this.
    I know your figures are correct, English is taught in HK to schoolchildren and many HK Chinese speak better English than we do, their diction is often perfect.
    I wonder if they realize how long it takes to learn to read Chinese.

    I must mention Amazon too, great company, great affiliate program, as long as you only want to target English speakers, if you want to target a wider audience and apply to Amazon jpn, for example, your correspondence will be in Japanese and Amazon de is in German!

    I ask you!! how freakin’ silly is that.

    They seemed to have assumed that every marketer can speak and read 5 languages.

    I know we are in the grip of a world economic recession but it wouldn’t cost that much to put right would it? and it may even increase their sales.

    Must admit G+ passed me by, no time to look at it as yet, from what I gather they had 10 million applications on the first day and had to close the site, I believe it was invite only after that.

    Be back soon I hope to rip into something else, I find it very therapeutic. 🙂

    I find it

    • Martin Nov 4, 2011 @ 22:02

      Hi Anna,

      Actually I wasn’t writing from the perspective of a marketer, I was writing from the perspective of a user.

      Google and eBay have global operations that they try to tailor to local conditions, which is laudable.

      The problem is, as I mentioned, that the world is a small place and its inhabitants increasingly mobile, with lots of non-local-language speakers travelling to other countries.

      So to offer user interfaces only in the local language is short-sighted and thoughtless, plus it creates a terrible user -experience for travelling users.

      I used my own experience, hence the reference to the English option. But a Thai user who couldn’t read Chinese travelling to China would have exactly the same experience (bad!).



  • Anna Nov 5, 2011 @ 11:23

    Hi Martin,

    Sorry my mistake, brain overload!

    I can see where you are coming from this though, and although the translation tools can help you with individual words and very short sentences, anything longer seems to come out as gibberish, ( or a bad MFA site 🙂 ) and of course it becomes very tedious and time-consuming for anything other than a few lines.

    As you say it would not take much to allow changes of user language interfaces, and I have seen this function on many websites albeit smaller ones, I suppose though most of them are geared toward commercial enterprises, and care little for their users.
    All the best

    • Martin Nov 5, 2011 @ 11:45

      It wouldn’t take anything at all for Google to allow language selection..! 🙂

      They already have all their pages in multiple languages, so all they’d have to do is provide a switcher that linked to whichever language page the user wanted.

      The reason I get frustrated with Google is that they set themselves up as the keeper of ‘good internet experience’, but they fall woefully short on things like this which are so easy to take care of.



  • marvin Nov 8, 2011 @ 1:03

    I am from the Philippines and I really hate it (freaking hate it) when google selects Tagalog as the language. They are using transliteration (word for word translation, not contextual translation), and it looks, reads, feels very awful, specially there are English technology languages/word that can’t be translated to Tagalog (our native language). And I know same goes to HK and other countries.

    • Martin Nov 8, 2011 @ 7:51

      Hi Marvin,

      And I’m guessing they don’t give you any option to switch to English either..?