Expedia and the Art of Localizing 200 Million Words Per Year

Julio Neves has a challenging job. As Senior Director of Localization and Content Solutions for global travel giant Expedia, Inc., Neves manages the centralized organization that provides translation services for all of Expedia Inc’s family of companies. Beyond translation work, he said his team also meets demand for “an increasingly growing range of globalization, internationalization, and content creation services.”

According to Neves, the Localization and Content Solutions team provides content generation, creation and transcreation. Their work encompasses language support for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), voice-overs and subtitling, linguistic testing and UATs, and content data analysis.

They offer these solutions to Expedia, Hotels.com, trivago, HomeAway, Cheaptickets.com, Orbitz, Wotif, Travelocity, Traveldoo, Expedia Local Expert, Expedia Affiliates Network, CarRentals.com, CruiseShips, Egencia and Hotwire.

Expedia Inc, after all, is one of the largest travel companies in the world, boasting over 200 travel booking sites across 75 countries worldwide and USD 9.4bn in revenues as reported in their second quarterly earnings report for 2017.

Neves’ CV reads like a 20-year history of a classic localization veteran. “I am a linguist at heart,” he said. He studied translation and interpretation, then started off as an in-house translator for an language service provider (LSP) in his home country of Brazil. He worked his way up the ladder and nearly 10 years ago, joined Expedia.

There, he worked as Director of Localization Quality and then Director of Global Localization, during which time he “helped build from scratch the quality management model [that now] supports the entire Expedia, Inc. family.”

200 Million Words, Millions of Dollars a Year

Two hundred million words a year—this is what Expedia’s localization needs entail from Neves. This puts them in the same ballpark of the European Union’s Translation Centre, which translated 0.75m pages in 2016.

“We spend millions of dollars on localization every year,” he told Slator. He was not as forthcoming when it came to naming their external vendors, saying they partnered with “one of the largest vendors in the localization technology industry.”

Asked about Expedia’s approach to machine translation, however, Neves was more open. They do leverage machine translation (MT), but their main concern is quality. “As content is one of our primary assets, we choose very carefully which strategy to be applied for localization: human or machine translation,” Neves said.

“We spend millions of dollars on localization every year.” Julio Neves, Senior Director of Localization and Content Solutions, Expedia, Inc.

He compared the strategic dilemma to localizing versus creating content. “Authoring content in local language, instead of localizing directly from a source language, has increasingly allowed us to deliver more efficient content solutions for our partners and played an essential role in our overall content strategy,” he said.

He added that they will keep exploring MT “as a potential solution for certain content areas and language combinations.” The speed that MT offers, after all, helps Neves’ team provide content at scale to their brands. He said they are working with external vendors on the MT front, both relying on the scalability that they offer while expanding Expedia’s internal capability.

Asked whether they are looking into neural MT, Neves commented that there has been a lot of “noise” about NMT. He said their approach was to look at it the same way they did statistical MT in the past: through the lens of continuous testing. He explained they continuously tested statistical MT to find the solutions best suited for their needs, confidently confirming that “we will continue to do so with adaptive or neural MT.”

Internal Expertise + External Partner Scalability

So without overly relying on MT, what does it take to tackle 200 million words annually? A lot of in-house localization experts. Neves could not specify his team’s headcount by role, but he said they were spread across 20 countries from over 38 different nationalities.

Julio Neves, Senior Director of Localization and Content Solutions, Expedia, Inc.

“When I joined the company in 2007, we had an in-house team of five people,” Neves said, adding that it was a very early stage of localization maturity for Expedia back then. “As Expedia grew very quickly and advanced into new territories… the Localization team evolved at the same pace. We made very significant investments in localization and built what we call today the ‘EI Localization and Content Solutions’ team.”

Expedia operates a hybrid resourcing model, according to Neves, combining the expertise of their in-house team with the scalability of external partners. He emphasized the importance of internal linguists in “[defining] the tone of voice and brand identity required for our products in each language, as well as defining the terminology and style in each market.”

We made very significant investments in localization and built what we call today the ‘EI Localization and Content Solutions’ team.”

That does not mean, of course, that their external partners are an afterthought. Neves said they developed “very strong” relationships with several vendors over the past decade, adding that these partners have been “extremely flexible” in adapting to Expedia’s tools and processes.

“On our side, we try to invest as much as possible in training them on the relevant tools and technologies so that this is not a painful process on their side,” he said.

Neves highlighted the value of scalability when it comes to their partners, as they need to support a large portfolio of brands that is also constantly growing. “For that reason, we have also invested in creating a strong Vendor Management function that works very closely with our Quality Management team,” Neves said. “Our most valuable lesson over the years has been the realization that our external partners are, in reality, just an extension of in our in-house teams.”

Beating Complexity with Automation and Technology

The tech stack that supports Expedia’s hybrid resourcing model was built with years of practical experience: “We have developed our own tools that have allowed us to increase, over the years, the level of control our linguists have over the quality of source code, making sure it is as localization-friendly as possible.”

Neves said they strive to standardize processes as much as possible through automation and technology, adding that it is one of their ongoing priorities.

“One of the biggest challenges… is still the lack of adherence to internationalization guidelines at a product development level.”

“We need to be at the forefront of internationalization, automation, and technology in order to make sure that our internal processes can cater [to our] level of complexity,” Neves said. To support 16 brand websites and various platforms and products, Expedia has thousands of developers creating code on a daily basis, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges, which I believe is shared across the entire industry, is still the lack of adherence to internationalization guidelines at a product development level,” Neves shared.

He added that one of their main efforts in 2017 is to make localization “a key step in the business decision-making process, as well as in product design.” To this end, they have been expanding partnerships with brand product teams across the organization and investing in various relevant technologies.

“Localization is understood throughout our organization as an essential long-term, revenue-driving investment.”

Despite the hurdles before them, Neves said “The future of localization for Expedia, Inc. has never looked so promising, and this space has never been so exciting.”

“Localization is understood throughout our organization as an essential long-term, revenue-driving investment that allows our company to become truly global – increasing our revenue from outside the US as a result,” he said. “As Head of the Localization and Content Solutions team, I feel extremely excited to be leading my team on this journey together with all our partners across Expedia, Inc.”