Growing Arabic web use thwarted by .com
Mohammad Zeidan, General Manager of ARI (MENA) LLZ, explains why the introduction of domain names like .شبكة will unleash the full potential of the Arabic Internet.
By Mohammad Zeidan
There is much to celebrate about the flourishing digital landscape built around the Arabic language online.
The Middle East region has seen Internet penetration growth of more than 3,300 percent between 2000 and 2014 and is now home to a whopping 112 million Internet users. There are more than 136 million Arabic-speaking Internet users globally, representing 36 percent of the total Arabic-speaking population.
The problem is that while web use is set to surge amongst Arabic speakers, only three percent of the current content online is actually in Arabic.
In 2012, only one in 20 Fortune 500 websites had Arabic content, and only one in four top 100 global brands offered Arabic versions of their sites, according to a CSA report.
The issue stems from the fact that while there have been huge advancements in getting Arabic-speakers online, the very infrastructure used to navigate the web has not kept pace – namely domain names and in-browser text platforms.
As Criterion Global reports, most Arabic web users are forced to use English or Arabizi online, a form of Arabic conveyed through Latin characters and European numerals. This fragmentation of the Arabic language further complicates the process of consolidating and indexing online Arabic content.
Another compounding factor is the common practice of transliteration of domain names, whereby Arabic words are registered in their phonetic English form under .com, the only way some businesses can attain a web presence. Some of the biggest brands in the Arabic business world are guilty of this practice, including Al Jazeera, [INSERT NAME] and [INSERT NAME].
It is clear the Arabic language is booming online, but why are we still facing access challenges?
We are the 64 percent
Only 36 percent of the 380 million Arabic speakers worldwide are online.
While the current 36 percent have been largely bilingual English/Arabic capable, we can expect the next 64 percent to be English illiterate. Navigating the Internet using Latin-script .com domain names is holding back the next 243 million Arabic web users who expect to use the net in their native language.
The writing is on the wall – and it is in Arabic script!
Is it no wonder that many local Internet users rely on Google to navigate the Internet? Almost 55% of Google searches in MENA are made in Arabic.
What we need is an end-to-end Arabic online experience for the Arabic speaking community. This means an Arabic keyboard to type in an Arabic domain name to visit Arabic content, without a reliance on English or Google.
Branding the web in Arabic
The solution is Arabic domain names which eliminate the reliance on traditional Latin script domain names like .com and instead allow Arabic speakers to navigate in their own language.
There are a number of countries already hosting Arabic script domains, including the United Arab Emirates (امارات.), Oman (عمان.) and Qatar (قطر.). These national digital assets are of enormous value to their respective countries and the citizens who access the Internet through them. However, they are being underutilised and are limited to the boundaries of the individual countries – stifling region-wide participation.
However, a new global Arabic script domain name is already revolutionising the Internet for Arabic speakers. شبكة. (.web or .network in Arabic and pronounced "dot shabaka") launched in October 2013 and has since established an entire corner of the Internet completely dedicated to the Arabic language, culture and society.
The introduction of شبكة. marked a significant milestone for the Arabic language online and companies such as Etisalat, Rotana, Rebel and Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group have already adopted the new names to align their brands more closely with their local customers online.
The reason they are doing this is because شبكة. provides an emotive connection between Arabic culture and the community while opening an online channel to intuitively connect Arabic speakers to native content.
Initiatives such as شبكة. are helping to bridge the gap between Arabic content and Arabic speaking Internet users. It helps provide the platform needed to fuel greater Arabic oriented online entrepreneurism and innovation.
Despite strong early support for شبكة., issues still remain in encouraging greater adoption.
For example, in a similar way to how some online text fields are unable to accept Arabic, domain names written in Arabic are often unrecognisable to many online apps and other in-browser experiences.
Often, this comes down to application creators or website developers being unaware of the existence of new domain names like شبكة. and building their platforms to not accept inputs other than the likes of .com, .net or .org.
Another area of frustration is email. While Google recently announced it has introduced new functionality for Gmail to accept non-Latin email addresses, very few other providers have taken any action on this front.
Further awareness about the issue of universal acceptance of Arabic domain names is needed. In a positive move, the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers established a Steering Group on the issue in March to do just this.
Until such issues are addressed, Arabic-speakers will continue to be treated like second class citizens on the web.
The Arabic online change movement
The message is clear. The Internet is changing – albeit slowly – and domain names like شبكة. are helping create an end-to-end Arabic online experience for the Arabic speaking community.
While previously the use of .com and English online was a necessity to access the benefits the web affords, no longer is this the case.
To support this, we've produced an educational video to help raise awareness of this change and encourage greater adoption of شبكة. through demonstrating the benefits for the entire community.
We owe it to ourselves and the next 64 percent of Arabic-speaking Internet users to support the Arabic online change movement and place our native language at the forefront of everything we do online.
By Mohammad Zeidan
General Manager, ARI MENA FZ-LLC