Website localisation strategy

Written by Matt Keogh on 9th April 2020

(Last updated 24th April 2020)

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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

The Advantages

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.

Consider language

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:

Content

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.

Technical development

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:

  • thefirm.co.uk/climatechange
  • thefirm.au/climatechange

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.

The alternative method is to use a different metadata type, "hreflang". This allows for cross linking the pages, so that search engines can better understand the relationship between them.

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.

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. Both will work if the website is set up correctly. 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.

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
  • Etc

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.

Conclusion

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.

Useful links

This article was posted in SEO by Matt Keogh

  • Matt Keogh

    Matt Keogh

    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

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