Strategies for a Multilingual Website

Having a website just in English may be okay for most businesses. In fact, even if you occasionally need to reach foreign visitors, you can expect that whoever is interested in your services has enough knowledge of English to clearly understand what you are offering. But if you sell something abroad or if you run an international business, the mere translation of the core website is not enough and one must venture into the process of website internationalization.


Internationalization or localization?

Internationalization and localization; these are the most spoken words when it comes to making a website multilingual. Developers often note them respectively as i18n and L10n. There is always a bit of confusion about these two terms; we could say that localization is actually part of the internationalization process. We start with planning internationalization, the process of designing software so that it can potentially be adapted to various languages without re-engineering. This is basically our strategy which includes understanding the culture and habits of the countries/languages we want to target. Once we have defined the internationalization strategy, we proceed with the localization for every single language/country: translating text, adapting the images, adapting the date/time format etc.

Choosing a site structure

The steps of an internationalization strategy need not be taken in a fixed order, but managing the multiple domains to be set up can be a good start. Basically, we have four options:

  • Country-coded top-level domains (www.example.fr, www.example.de, www.example.jp)
  • Subdomains in a single global top-level domain (france.example.com, germany.example.com, japan.example.com)
  • Subfolders in a single global top-level domain (www.example.com/france, www.example.com/germany, www.example.com/japan)
  • URL parameters

Using different top-level domains for each language is probably the most brilliant solution but is not without drawbacks: it’s the most expensive in terms of money and resources, and it splits link-authority over several domains. Subdomains are easy to set up, but they share the same problem of splitting link-authority. Organizing the structure in subdirectories is probably the easiest solution which also requires very little maintenance, but may not look professional though. Please note that both subdomains and subfolders give a weaker signal to Google’s crawler, compared to top-level domains. Using URL parameters is not recommended anymore and, as Google says: “Overly complex URLs, especially those containing multiple parameters, can cause problems for crawlers by creating unnecessarily high numbers of URLs that point to identical or similar content on your site. As a result, Googlebot may consume much more bandwidth than necessary or may be unable to completely index all the content on your site.”

A cautionary tale of duplicate content

Having duplicate content on a website causes a ranking penalty. You may have some small differences on some pages, like date or currency values, and still Google might see them as duplicate content. To avoid this effect on a multilingual website, we should use hreflang. This code lets you specify all the different URLs on your site that have the same content; in a different language, or with the same language but targeted to a different region (United Kingdom, Australia, United States …). hreflang instructs the search engine that it’s almost the same content, just optimized for a different audience, and you should use it whenever you have the same content in multiple languages or in the same language but targeted to different regions.

There are three ways to implement hreflang: using link elements in the <head>, using HTTP headers, or using an XML sitemap. The first two methods are easy to implement but, in case of a large website with multiple languages, they will become hard to maintain. Also, they are a potential source of sluggishness. On the other hand, the XML sitemap has a more complicated setup but its easy maintenance makes it the best choice for large websites. 

You definitely need a plan

When it comes to actually building the website in another language, simply translating the existing main pages may not work, especially on a large website with a local shopping system. There are a lot of cultural differences between countries and languages; some are obvious, like the writing direction for Japanese or Arabic, but some others may not be, like the date format differences between the United States and all European countries (Great Britain included). Local currencies must be used as much as possible, and units must be converted into the standard metric system; the more you adhere to the local language and culture, the better the results you get in terms of trust and confidence. Here's a quick (but nevertheless important) list of what you should check when planning a multilingual website:

Keywords

Simply translating the original keywords to the target language is not an appropriate approach. Some English words are, in some languages, more commonly used than the local equivalents, so they must be included in the keyword list. Also some super-up-to-date English keywords may sound outdated or odd in another language, even if the translation is formally correct. When choosing the keywords, the help of someone who is really in touch with the real language is invaluable.

Date, number and unit formats

A quick and simple tip but a real must; without these conversions the website looks unprofessional.

Language chooser option

Many websites redirect users to the localized version, depending on their IP address or the browser language, assuming that they are proficient in the language of the country from which they're accessing the website. Case in point: think of people living in a country with a language and even an alphabet they don't understand, usually for working, who are automatically redirected to a website they can't read. Give them a manual language choice at least, please.

Different languages for different countries

If you want to start a business in Canada, you can't ignore the fact that the country is actually bilingual and a French website must be coupled to the English one. That's not an isolated case: Switzerland, Belgium and India are just some other examples. If one country is crucial to your business, you should cover all its official languages. That may seem overzealous, but consider that in most bilingual (or multilingual) countries, the language belongs to the national identity which carries a very high level of importance. 

Check hrefLang tags

It may seem strange, but regional codes are often misspelled. That's because most people typically remember the most used ones by heart, but if you check the official list, you will find some surprises. In fact, the right code for English in the United Kingdom is en-gb and not en-uk, as many people think (this error is so common that Google now accepts even the wrong spelling). 

In a nutshell

Internationalization is a process that requires utmost attention, for two good reasons: it is strictly connected to SEO, and it is a process required usually by big companies (i.e. very important clients not to be lost). An accurate website translation with proper SEO keyword research will generate far better results and thus a corresponding revenue increase than a standard one. As a general rule, the bigger the business, the more costly mistakes can be; gathering and leveraging proper information is always the best insurance we can have for our business.