Is Your Ecommerce Search Lost in Translation?

By Kemberly Gong

There are a number of concerns ecommerce managers have in mind when their sites launch internationally – are all of the product descriptions translated and offered in the correct currency? Are all of the major pages translated and designed for an international audience? Is the usability of the site designed to match the expectations of users?

While those are all important concerns, it’s also imperative to look at the search and navigation of your site and make adjustments for the different ways your new audience might look for products or content.

The vernacular between English-speaking countries alone varies widely. For instance, in Australia, the term “sunnies” is used instead of “sunglasses” and “esky” is used to describe a cooler or icebox. In the United Kingdom, the shoes known as flip flops in the U.S. are referred to as “jandals” and sweaters are “jumpers” or “knitwear.” These differences in slang, if not accounted for, could mean that users on your site who search using their colloquial terms may encounter a “no results” page, even if you carry those items on your site.

On the Australian surf gear site a search for “boardies,” which is slang for board shorts, displays results for board shorts – meaning that customers find exactly what they want, even if they search a word that isn’t used in the title or description.

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Differences in slang are accounted for on ecommerce sites using a synonym tool, which allows merchandisers to correlate various words with each other, so that regardless of what query term a user searches, they will find a correct set of results.

Even in different parts of the same country, regional slang or terminology can change. Andrew Jacobs, owner of JAM Paper, said they started noticing the term “chevron” showing up more frequently in search terms, but he had labeled products with a chevron print as “zig zag.” By creating a synonym rule for both terms, he now directs users who search either term to the same results without having to re-name products.

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Alternatively, if your site is in a country that speaks multiple languages, you might use two different languages in your synonyms. For an ecommerce site in Brazil, where users search in Portuguese and English, you might group words like “bicicleta” and “bike” together to ensure that regardless of language, your users find the right bicycle.

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A synonym tool is also helpful when customers search the same product using various spellings. This happens frequently with tech products. For example, users may search for an iPad using different terms like “i Pad,” “ipad” or “i-pad,” or use related words like “apple tablet” or simply “tablet.” By creating a synonym rule, you’ll show users the same results for variations in spelling.

As you can see, paying attention to the finer details of searches can pay off in helping your customers find exactly what they’re looking for, and make sure their search isn’t lost in translation.


Kemberly Gong is a Contributing Editor to the SLI Systems blog. SLI Systems is the leading SaaS provider of Site Search and Navigation solutions for IR 500 clients. To learn more about SLI Systems’ solutions for eCommerce, visit


1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Posted November 22, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    This is a great article. It is really important to understand vernacular variations across the English speaking world if you’re trying to deliver relevant results. It’s also critical to look at spelling variations. For example, we sell a product called “Color Standards”, but our UK, Aussie and NZ customers often search for “Colour Standards”. A simple hypernym solves this problem.

    Similarly, you should look for words that end in “ize” that some users might spell “ise” such as “homogenisers”, “oxidisers”, etc. and words where the “re” is transposed like “metre” and “centre”. You can find a whole list of the terms to look out for on Wikipedia in an article entitled “American and British English spelling differences”.

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