The aim of this article is to discuss the advantages of localising a website as well as the considerations that will need addressing. This is by no means exhaustive, there is much more to consider. My aim though is to use our previous experiences to give you enough insight to get started.
What do we mean by website localisation? A localised website provides a tailored experience that is specific to a user’s region or country. A multilingual website is an example of this and is often the first step. But a truly localised website goes beyond merely translating content. It provides content that is relevant to people in specific regions. A few examples of this would be:
- Blog articles that talk about local issues
- Products & Services that are only available in any given region
- Team pages that show contacts in the local area
- An "about" section that talks about what a company does in the region and why the customer should choose them
- Local currencies and measurement units
There are a number of advantages to localising websites. Here are a few:
- Search engines reward rich, unique and relevant content in their search results. If your website isn't appearing in regions that you're targeting, it may be that content isn't relevant enough to perform well in that region.
- Because the content is more relevant to a customer, this tailored content improves the customer's experience.
- It can resolve issues around selling different products and services in different regions.
- It empowers local marketing teams who are able to create localised marketing and sales activities.
With the advantages being obvious, I'd like to detail the considerations.
Although automated translation services such as Google Translate are getting more advanced, they’re still not as accurate as a human translation service. A human better understands the intended meaning of the original copywriter. One technique could be to use an automated translation service to make a start, but it will always need a human to complete the work accurately.
You must also consider that where someone lives doesn’t always determine their preferred language. Many countries are bilingual such as Canada, Belgium and Switzerland. For this reason, localised websites should allow countries and languages to be chosen independently of each other.
Is website localisation expensive?
There are two major costs will be related to content and technical development:
A major cost for creating localising a website will be writing region-specific content. As detailed above, this isn’t a case of translating content as you would on a multilingual site. Thought and effort is needed to understand what is relevant for each region.
A cornerstone of search engine optimisation (SEO), is updating content regularly to remain relevant. Ongoing analysis should also be conducted to understand how effective it is at bringing in traffic. This will change over time as the search terms people use evolve and search engines update their algorithms. What may work at first may not be effective over time. Adding to the complexity is people in different regions use different search engines. For example, Baidu in China or Yandex in Russia.
Then there is consideration for off-site content. A good SEO strategy should involve creating content for local blogs or advertisers with links to your website.
Whilst the likes of CMS’s such as WordPress are great for simple sites, there is often a lack of multi-regional functionality. Here you may need to consider enterprise level platforms such as TYPO3, which have this functionality baked in.
This means that the cost for doing this will be dependent on the CMS. Just as importantly is how easy the site is to update for editors. For example, can a central team update all pages? Can areas be locked so that only certain regional teams have access?
To optimise the site for search engines in specific regions, the actual way a website is built or hosted needs to be considered. It's beyond the scope of this article but be aware that the cost is considerable for certain regions.
Potential problems to avoid with website localisation
Avoid duplicate content in localised websites
It's common for the same content to appear on different regional websites. If the content is the same but appears on different URLs it may be deemed as 'duplicate content' by search engines. If so, the website may be penalised by being pushed down the rankings.
For example, consider the same article appearing at these URLs:
In this example, a search engine might deem that one of the regional sites has plagiarised the other. Each search engine judges duplicated content in different ways. However, when the same content appears on different URLs, the negative impact on ranking is the same. The content competes against each other to cannibalise and dilute each other’s ranking. When multiple pages exist search engines struggle to know which is the most appropriate to show in results.
One method to avoid this is to use a canonical link. This is a piece of metadata telling search engines where the content originated. This transfers all ranking equity to the original page. The problem in multi-regional websites is that there may not be an originator.
Indicating alterantive versions of content
Another technique is to use a different metadata type, "hreflang". This will show the search engines that there are alternative versions of the page aimed at different languages and locations.
It's important to note here that Hreflang isn’t as much about telling Google there is the same content on different sites so don’t mark as duplicate content (though this will help). It’s more useful for telling Google that there is an alternative page that is about the same thing - it doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t duplicated. So if you have a page on two different regional sites that are about the same thing, it's instructing the search engines that there is an alternative page targeting X language speakers in X country for the content you are currently
This is useful to understand as otherwise it becomes very difficult to know just what is duplicate content. For example, if the only difference between a page is that one talks about pounds and the other dollars, then is that duplicate content even though there are differences? Thankfully, we don't have to think about that, we just need to know if there is an equivalent.
Hreflang and Countries
With hreflang you absolutely must have reciprocal tags between the pages. If you only use it in one of the pages, this will not work.
Hreflang can indicate language and if required a target country to differentiate. But be wary of regions as it can not understand this. For example, there is no Asia Pacific regional hreflang tag.
As an example, hreflang should be set up like this
On the Australian page:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="https://yoursite.com/uk/article" />
and on the UK page:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-au" href="https://yoursite.com/au/article" />
As with most things SEO, this isn’t as straightforward as it may sound so needs constant testing and monitoring. Google provides an international targeting tool for this purpose.
We receommned setting up separate Google Search Console (GSC) profiles for each country if done by directory - with the overall domain ones as well. This way it's possilbe to monitor the pages in groups and pinpoint any issues. If using local domains you will want all of them in GSC. Here you could also possibly pull the data into a Dashboard to monitor them all in one place.
Defining a folder structure and domain name strategy
Country code domains (ccTLD) or Generic domains (gTLD)?
Search engines and customers need to be able to distinguish between regional variations of the website. One of the ways this is achieved is through the website’s domain name and folder structure.
One direction is to use a generic top level domain (gLTD) such as “yourwebsite.com”. Then employ a folder structure for each region such as “yourwebsite.com/au”, “yourwebsite.com/uk” etc). Another way is through the use of country code top level domains (ccTLD) such as “yourwebsite.au” or “yourwebsite.co.uk”.
So which is better? Firstly, if the website is a simple translation it should never use different ccTLDs. As I’ve talked about above, some countries are bilingual so this makes no real sense.
From a brand point of view it could be said that “yourwebsite.com/au” has more of a global feel than “yourwebsite.au”, though there are other ways to get this kind of message across to your audience. If you're looking for which way distinguishes your content best for search engines, it’s not clear.
On the one hand I could argue that country specific domains are very explicit — it’s obvious that “.au” is Australia “.de” is Germany, and so on. The other side of the argument is that other indicators such as metadata or server information are equally effective. Both will work if the website is set up correctly. Ensure you link to the other language versions of the site and have hreflang in place (see below) as well as declare the language used on the page in the html header.
Do you need localised content for every region?
If you have localised content for different regions, you'll need to decide what users see if they aren't in those regions. For example, if you have regional versions for the UK and Australia, which site should people from the US see?
One way is to direct people to the most relevant region for them. This is sometimes done automatically (see below for more on this), or the users are given a choice where they are forced into choosing their region.
An alternative way is to create a site with amalgamated content from all the regions. For example, news that is pulled in from each region, or a team page that shows all the teams from every region. This becomes the ‘global’ website.
Which to choose will depend on your individual business needs and how many regions you are creating localised content for.
When a global site looks like a local site
Something to look out for when creating localised versions of a website, is related to ccTLDs. For example a law firm, “The Firm” may start out with a website that sits at thefirm.co.uk. Although it uses “.co.uk” in the URL, the content isn’t wholly intended for a UK audience. It’s actually intended for a global audience. When a localised site is then created for Australia, using “thefirm.au” an untidy situation arises: We now have a site intended for a local audience using “.au” and a global audience at “.co.uk”. This isn’t a show stopper, but it can lead to confusion over who the different websites are for.
Should you ever automatically redirect the user?
If a user is in Australia is there any point in showing them the UK version of the website? An important point to consider is how they got to the UK version of the website in the first place. If they typed in the UK URL, then automatically redirecting would likely annoy the user. After all, they've already shown intention to view a specific regional website.
Although we wouldn’t recommend this, there is a scenario where businesses often redirect users.
For this example think of a business with multiple regional websites:
- Website for United Kingdom
- Website for Australia
- Website for US
It may use a folder structure or a ccTLD to distinguish between the sites. However, on marketing material, it may simply appear as “thefirm.com” without the ccTLD or folder structures. In this scenario, what happens if a user goes directly to that URL? As discussed above there could be a global website, but this isn’t always the case. In this scenario businesses often automatically redirect a user to the most relevant regional site. If you find yourself needing to do this, please be aware of the following:
Don’t redirect with IP address
One reason to not redirect a user based on their IP address is that IP addresses are simply not reliable. Another reason is that it can cause Google to display results from incorrect regions.
Why? Because Google crawls websites using a US based IP address. This means that if you’re redirecting using an IP address, Google may only index the US version of the website. It may never crawl non-US regional variations of the site. It may be that the redirect works, but you can kill your SEO rankings in any country other than US at the same time.
The better way to do this is to use the “Accept-Language” header. This is information about the user's language preferences that is passed to the server via HTTP when a page is requested. Although intended to show language preferences, it is a widely accepted way of showing a user's region. I've included links about this at the end of this article.
As you can see there’s lots to consider if you plan to make a multi-regional website - and this is only a fraction of it! I’m hoping that by reading this article, it will help you make a few of the key decisions needed.
Matt is focused on strategic vision and ensuring this is followed through to exquisite execution. Having been an award winning designer since 2001, he knows how to put the user first while building stakeholder alignment in order to deliver key objectives. It’s this passion for understanding people that enables him to design the best experiences for them. @matsaukeo