Is a multi-lingual site right for you?

Written by Simon Emery on 7th November 2013

(Last updated 9th February 2016)

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As the world gets smaller it’s not only large international companies that need to think about offering their website in more than one language. Small businesses have the opportunity to reach more markets than ever before.

However, before you decide to offer your site in every language known to man, here are few considerations:

Do you really need a multilingual site?

Every language you add increases the time and effort needed to maintain your site. Google Analytics may say you had 10 visitors from Outer Mongolia in the last 12 months, does that really mean its something you should be offering?

Alternatively, even though you’re a small, local, UK focussed company doesn’t mean you should just offer English. If your customer base is heavily biased towards a certain culture, consider speaking to them in their native tongue.

Country vs Languages

We often look at languages as being country specific - but this isn’t true. Translating your site into Spanish gives you access to over 20 countries, plus those with a heavy Hispanic population. The flip side are countries with multiple official languages (China, India etc) where to reach the entire population you’ll need to consider a number of translations.

Always have in your mind the dominant language of your target market, not just which county they live in.

Same site or separate domains?

When looking at how to set up your site you can either have a separate domain for each language (www.yoursite.fr www.yoursite.de etc) or sub domains of the existing site (www.yoursite.com/fr).

Separate domains can help when entering a new country as you ‘appear’ more local and gives more freedom in regards to site architecture. However there are pitfalls from an SEO perspective - if you have an American English and Australian English site then your content will be duplicated (not liked by Google) and you may even compete against yourself for the same keywords.

You’ll also need to make sure that the domain is still available…

Sub-domains can be a little more restrictive, however any site wide design/template changes only need to be implement once. It allows all languages to benefit from Google seeing you as a bigger authority on your chosen subject than they ever would individually.

Content generation and translation

There are many options available to translate your existing site, some good examples are:

It is tempting to use an automated system to translate your copy as these are the cheaper option - you can expect to pay as much for a human translation as the initial content generation, though this is well worth the investment. Auto-translations miss the subtleties and emphasis that the human touch can provide.

However, the initial translation and implementation is often the easy part - the day-to-day maintenance and content generation can prove to be tricky. Writing a reactionary blog post or email newsletter can be quick to do, but easily slowed down by having to translate it into a dozen languages. When updating the content of your site, you’ll need to factor in the additional time (and cost) for each variation.

Whole site or part translation?

To ease the burden, you could translate only the important sections of your website. Is it 100% necessary to translate the marketing fluff? Consider focussing your efforts on the functional aspects that will aid customer conversion.  

Alternatively, look to create a well crafted landing page in the the local language which tells the user who you are and an introduction to the site, before directing them back into your original language.

Cultural differences

By expanding into new territories, you’ll need to be aware of the cultural differences between your markets. In Europe we tend to like design that is simple with clear central message. In Asia however, the preference is for more colour, images and filling the page with content. Translating your site alone won’t make it attractive to a new market.

We’ll be exploring this further in an upcoming blog post.

Design Implications

The character length and construction of words varies widely between languages. Finnish, for example, combines whole sentences into single words. Try pronouncing lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas (translation - Airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student).

Despite being hard to say, this causes issues with type-setting and page layout. Where line breaks would naturally appear and text would flow, designs can start to look disjointed and awkward.

Different characters also present further issues. For Arabic, you’ll need to consider the implications of the page reading right to left - it’s not always possible to translate text and drop into existing templates.

Web Fonts

Commercial fonts will usually include all the relevant characters from Western European languages. This may not be the case when you expand into Greek and Cyrillic - and more so when you need to feature Arabic, Hebrew, Indian etc.

Ensure that all the characters for the new language are available in your brand font. If not, you’ll need to consider font substitution for these or, more drastically, updating your brand font.

Search Engine Optimisation

The keywords you’ve set for English speakers may not be applicable to your new market. A straight translation of the original page may not be the best approach - make sure you understand your users and tailor the keywords to the local language (including colloquialisms and slang).

Automated translations tools can be too literal and miss the context of the word or phrase so human translations are better. It will cost more in the short term but you will see greater return on your investment.

In conclusion...

The decision to translate your entire site can be an easy one to make, but you must consider the wider implications. Setting it up in the first instance is only the beginning. You need to ensure you will be able to maintain them and prevent them from becoming a millstone around your neck. Worse still, the forgotten child.

This article was posted in SEO, Client Guides by Simon Emery

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