Machine translation has its opponents and supporters but everyone agrees that eBay adopting machine translation (MT) is becoming a huge success story. They really are selling more with the help of MT.

eBay has increased its sales by showing machine-translated product listings and product descriptions to its users in different countries and languages. This means that, for example, visitors on Russian eBay site will see products originally listed on Spanish eBay site. And not only do they see the products, they actually buy them. All this is fully enabled by MT.

eBay uses MT not only for product titles and product descriptions. MT is used also in translating product queries and messages between the potential buyers and sellers. We all know that the quality of MT could still be a lot better. Nonetheless, this does not seem to bother eBay’s clients. Quite the contrary, they vote with their money that MT quality is good enough for them. eBay might very well be the company that makes most money by using MT, surpassing companies like Google and Microsoft.

In the World Wide Web, the biggest and the cheapest web store usually wins. However, most people buy only in their own language, even if they could understand and speak other languages. Users appreciate service, and using one’s own language is the best service there is. High translation costs have prevented the competition from foreign countries and other linguistic areas from entering new markets. Therefore many country-wide or local web stores have been safe so far. To be successful, it has been sufficient to have the biggest and cheapest web store within one country and one language. Now those days are gone.

eBay shows us that MT technology is quickly maturing and enables entering local markets without the so-far prohibitive translation costs. MT has expanded eBay’s customer base considerably without too high cost. Using MT this way seems to be a no-brainer now that the technology is good enough. Indeed, others are quickly following eBay. Recently Amazon acquired an MT company and is now developing its own MT infrastructure. In addition, every global internet giant (e.g. Google, Microsoft, Baidu, Yandex, Alibaba, etc.) seems to already have its own translation technologies or at least is looking for a suitable technology to acquire.

Is own MT team and technology necessary to compete against the internet giants? Well, at least the quality of general MT systems, like Google Translate, is not sufficient enough for most commercial translation needs. To achieve acceptable and good-enough results the MT must be customized for each web store. Traditionally, MT customization has been very expensive and the primary task of the internal MT teams.

Luckily for smaller web stores, the technology is evolving quickly. The cost of MT customization is decreasing rapidly to become a viable alternative for smaller web stores too, with only few small steps behind the quality of dedicated MT teams of the internet giants. While the giants certainly have a big lead, the most agile smaller web stores might be able to get their MT customized just in time to prepare for the increasing competition – and expand their market to some new languages too.

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