Google might want to learn how to make a web site

I realize it’s a tough world for a company coming from a place with a binary understanding of languages (“English” and “Foreign”), but this has nothing to do with cultural differences. It’s about understanding web technology. Or your users, for that matter.

When you visit most of Google’s services, their interface will change its language based on Google’s guess of where you are. If you’re a businessguy travelling in Korea and want to access your e-mail via the web, even from your own computer in the hotel, you’re in for a fantastic learning experience. Puzzle for hours over the interface, wondering whether that button says “Delete” or “Squid sandwich”. Marvel at the new Arabic positioning of interface elements. Get ready to learn German even though it appears nowhere in your browser’s accept-languages list. Millions of people already speak German, might as well catch up to see what all the hype is about. And when you’re subscribed to a Swedish company’s ADSL service (like I was), Google cheerfully serves results in Swedish. Men det är inte so god för de som talar inte svensk.

Google seems to geotarget languages. They try to guess your IP’s location, then serve you some language that they pick from a conveniently located black top hat like the struggling little bunny it is. Living in a country with four official languages, Google’s behavior becomes especially rude. Can they tell whether my IP is from Chur or from Domat/Ems, two towns only a few kilometers apart but with different languages? What about bilingual places such as Biel/Bienne? Oh, that’s right, languages are binary, so that situation would never come up.

Google, here’s an idea. What if the user told you what language they want to accept? There could be, say, a field in the GET request header that tells your servers what languages the user wants to see. This would be a miraculous innovation if it hadn’t been in the HTTP spec since 1999. If you implemented that, perhaps your news groups wouldn’t be filling up with eight pages of user requests to turn off the darn geotargeting since at least September 2007. It would also help if Google services didn’t completely ignore the language settings in users’ accounts, as they do right now. I get German sometimes, then English, perhaps this is a quantum situation and every time I am not googling for anything, my results turn Swahili.

If you’ve reached this page wondering how you do change your language settings for Google’s services, here’s a quote directly from the horse. Err, I mean Graham:

That preference page actually just sets a cookie — language
preference isn’t stored permanently in a database or anything. If
there’s no cookie set, we’ll go by your browser’s language
preferences, which is probably what’s happening for you.

So if you want to get around this, you can do one of the following:

  • Set Firefox to not automatically delete cookies on shut down.
  • Change your browser’s language preference to English.
  • Bookmark and use that link
    for accessing Reader. (The “hl=en” forces it into English, regardless
    of any other settings.)


Jumping through hoops? It’s the new web experience. Trouble with this approach is, there still seems to be some geotargeting involved, so if you forget accessing the services via hl=en, you might still end up googling in Sanskrit from time to time.

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