413 million users in the Arab world are projected to be on the Internet by 2015, yet only 3% of current online content is in Arabic
With a yearly growth rate of 2500%, Middle East North Africa’s (MENA) online audience is currently one of the fastest growing online segments. However, a huge disparity exists between the number of online MENA Arabic users and the Arabic content available online.
Despite the growing Arab Internet user base, the number of localized Arabic sites and sites with original Arabic content and remains low. In 2012, only 1 in 20 Fortune 500 websites had Arabic content, and only 1 in 4 top 100 global brands offered Arabic versions of their sites, according to a CSA report.
The ability to write in Arabic, a process that goes from right to left, is also limited to the availability of online bidirectional text platforms. Due to the scarcity of bidirectional text platforms, most Arabic users are forced to use English or Arabizi, a form of Arabic conveyed through latin characters and European numerals. This fragmentation of language further complicates the process of consolidating and indexing online Arabic content for search engines.
Efforts to bridge the Arabic language gap on the web have been spearheaded by the government and a number of private companies. Google has promoted the expansion of Arabic web content through Arabic Web Days and since 2012, annually recognizes National Arabic Web Day on 12/12. Taghreedat attempts to localize popular web platforms like Wikipedia, Twitter, TED, and Coursera with their volunteer based translation network. And Yamli tackles the complications of searching the web in Arabic. Noura Al Kaabi prominently leads government initiatives to “build an Arabic-language media empire” through the media organization twofour54 (Abu Dhabi’s geographical coordinates).
Internationalized Domain Names (IDN), which allow users to register domain names in their native language, have also been used as a platform for claiming Arabic language online identity. Regional councils, like ictQatara and SaudiNIC, offer the region specific Arabic domains .قطر and .السعودية, while a task force on Arabic Scripts IDN has emerged to resolve the technical challenges of accessing and registering Arabic domains.
Efforts to promote online Arabic content is most visible on social media channels, primarily Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, where Arabic is slowly overtaking English as the predominant online language and interface in [abbr title=”Middle East North Africa”]MENA[/abbr] regions. These social media platforms are also increasingly embraced as a primary source of news, a 2013 MENA regional study by Bayt.com and the Dubai School of Government revealed that nearly 28% of Arabs actually prefer social media as their primary source of news.
While the migration to digital advertising has been slower than other mature markets, digital advertising is gaining traction in [abbr title=”Middle East North Africa”]MENA[/abbr] and growing at a rate of 35% a year. The changing demographics of the web and behavior of the Arab digital generation are especially significant for international marketing and are topics that Criterion Global is closely following for 2014.
Featured graph illustrating Internet usage among the Arab digital generation is from Booz & Company – Google Arab Digital Generation Survey 2012.