As people increasingly turn to digital channels to find information, access services and complete tasks, it’s important that organisations make these processes as intuitive and seamless as possible. For many businesses this includes catering to the language preferences of what may be a disparate global audience.
In this post I’ll be looking at the different options available to deliver multilingual content online, along with tips to support a streamlined implementation process, and additional considerations to address if you want to maximise impact and satisfaction.
Multilingual websites make content available in a number of different languages, enabling global organisations to serve multiple geographical locations as well as catering for language variations that may exist within a single region. When interacting with a multilingual website users may be prompted to choose their preferred language, or a specific version of the site may be served to them automatically, based on their location or other contextual information.
An obvious reason to deliver your content in a user’s preferred language is that it helps to increase trust and familiarity, making it more likely that they will engage with your services and helping drive repeat visits. For international shopping sites too, customers are more likely to convert if products are shown in their language, with their preferred currency and payment methods, as this reduces cognitive effort and creates an instant connection to what’s being displayed. (If you’re interested in learning more about international considerations for ecommerce specifically, check out this summary of a talk I helped deliver on the subject, which also has links to the on-demand recording.)
Having a multilanguage website also makes it easier for international audiences to find you online. Search engines are one of the most common starting points of a user’s online journey and they’ll likely be searching in their native language, so it’s important to make sure you appear against relevant terms, and maintain relevance once they land on your site by displaying content that aligns with their previous expectations. If your underlying infrastructure is set up appropriately (which I’ll cover a little later in this post) then it should also be easy to add language variations in future, giving you a larger target audience and so helping increase reach and revenue.
When setting up a multilanguage website there are a number of important decisions to make, starting with how you’ll manage the multilingual translation process itself. There are several options available here, each of which has its own pros and cons:
As the name suggests, human translation is where content is translated manually by real people, and is recognised as pretty much the gold standard of translation approaches. There are numerous benefits to putting your content through a human translation process, including:
The main downside to human translation is cost, as unless you’re a very large organisation with in-house translators you’ll likely be reliant on a paid service (although there are options to help mitigate against this such as translation services that build a database of commonly-translated words and phrases, including industry-specific terms, to reduce costs over time). There may also be an impact on how quickly you’re able to implement your content, although again solutions are available to help streamline the process (a WordPress multilingual plugin is available, for example, to manage human translations within the site itself). These cost and time implications may affect your ability to scale if you want to expand into multiple languages at the same time, as replicating content for each new version of the site will require significant overhead.
A more cost-effective option than human translation, machine-translated sites typically integrate with automated services (such as Google Translate, or the TranslatePress plugin for WordPress translation) to provide content translation on the fly. Alongside the speed of translation this is also a highly scalable approach, as you are limited only by the capacity of your translation services – which can offer many hundreds of different language variations – and in the majority of cases adding a new language option is as simple as checking a box.
You do run the risk with machine translation however of content being ‘not quite right’, as it lacks the same levels of validation or flexibility offered by human translation. The control you have can vary according to the service you’re using so it’s important to review your options prior to implementation, and explore potential configuration solutions to increase accuracy. For example some plugins allow you to mark content as ‘not for translation’, allowing you to ensure brand and product names display correctly.
It’s also important to confirm whether your translated content will be stored in your multilingual site, to support international Search Engine Optimisation (SEO); this is something I’ll look at in a later section of this post.
The third main multilingual translation option for multilingual sites is browser translation. Most browsers these days offer automated translation for sites that are not in a user’s preferred language, which the user can then accept or reject as required. This option is instant, highly scalable and free for organisations; it is also clearer to the user that they are viewing machine-translated content, helping manage their expectations around accuracy and quality.
One of the major downsides of browser translation however is that translated content is not stored within your site, meaning that users will not be able to search in their chosen language, and your search engine visibility will likely be negatively impacted as a result.
Whether you choose to use a human translation service, machine translation or a combination of solutions, how you set up your multilanguage website can make a big difference to your ability to serve users, and support your plans for future scalability. Here are some of the key considerations to help you plan your multilingual website solution:
The underlying architecture of your multilingual site can be configured in numerous different ways, and although the differences may not be visible to the user there may be internal considerations that inform your decision-making.
Offering multilingual capabilities within a single site can be achieved through integration with an external service or plugin, which can support the rapid rollout of additional languages across existing content on the site (you can also manage human-translated content via different folder structures within the admin area of your site). This approach reduces ongoing development costs and supports scalability, but may limit your ability to customise different language variations to suit the specific requirements and interests of your users.
In this model new sites are developed for each language variation you require, and are managed within a single administrative installation. The approach supports both human and machine translation, and provides greater flexibility over what content is displayed across different language variations.
As you’re working from a single installation too, integrations with third-party services can be streamlined, making the approach ideal for organisations that have complex digital ecosystems, such as those in the ecommerce space (indeed, it’s the approach we used for our client OKdo, delivering seven country sites in six languages and four currencies in just eight months).
If you are targeting different regions with significantly different offerings, a multi-installation, multi-site configuration may be the most suitable option. This provides the highest levels of flexibility and control, across both the front- and back-end elements of your sites as well as any integrations or plugins.
You also have the option to make the sites themselves multilingual, as we did for our client, global electronics retailer RS Components. When they wanted to target new markets in South East Asia we worked with them to create two new sites serving the Indonesia and Vietnam regions. Each of these sites was also made available in English, providing maximum flexibility for users to interact as they wished, while enabling RS Components to control which products from their catalogue were displayed on each site.
Across all of the above options, you have the choice to create a bespoke digital platform, or use a Content Management System (CMS) to deliver your multilingual site or sites. While there are many benefits to building a bespoke website, for multilingual sites in particular a CMS can prove helpful in reducing the administrative burden, and ensuring that important considerations such as search engine optimisation are covered at the outset (provided you’ve conducted a robust appraisal of available CMS solutions first).
Of course you may be looking at adding multilingual capabilities to an existing bespoke site, in which case it’s probably worth taking a step back to review your core requirements, and understand whether it’s more cost-effective to continue with your bespoke solution or move to a new CMS installation. You may also appreciate the flexibility offered by bespoke software, although the rise of headless CMS development presents an alternative way to get the flexibility you need while retaining the back-end efficiency of a content management system.
A final note in this section is around the URL structure you implement across your multilingual sites. There are a number of choices available here:
The first example gives the search engine the strongest indicator of the intended target audience for the site, but it can be costly if you need to buy multiple TLDs to target lots of countries. So the option we typically see is using subdomains or subdirectories, which are often more cost-effective and also allow your common domain to keep and share any SEO gains you may have built up. Ultimately, there’s pros and cons to each of these – as well as different levels of effort involved depending on how your site’s been set up – so it’s important to research which one is right for you and your business as part of your planning process.
I’ve already talked about how you might translate the content on your multilingual site, but it’s worth looking a bit further at exactly what ‘content’ encompasses. The images on your site, for example, may need to be tailored to suit different cultural contexts and preferences, requiring manual configuration by your administrators. Your site setup here can help drive efficiencies, for example by including labels as text fields rather than building them into the images, so be sure to review requirements such as these upfront to help guide development.
As I mentioned earlier, elements such as site navigation and menus (also known as ‘site furniture’) can be particularly affected by translations, so be sure to thoroughly test these areas across all languages and devices to confirm that they remain readable and usable. The same applies for buttons, forms, and other calls to action that support key user journeys and business goals.
The question of whether or not your content translations are stored within your system is also critical, as this is required to support both internal site search and external search engine optimisation. Alongside confirming that your content is stored somewhere, it’s also important to check if your translation solution enables metadata to be translated to deliver further SEO benefits.
You can also signal to Google and other search engines which regions and languages you’re targeting through hreflang tags, as well as set a fallback language for users outside of those areas you’re targeting. Here’s an example of how hreflang tags can be configured across different domain setups:
Depending on your choice of platform you may have additional functionality to support you in creating a hierarchy of content and demonstrating any connections between different languages (this is offered via the MultilingualPress plugin for WordPress for example, which then creates hreflang tags automatically for you).
I’ve already briefly touched on some of the additional cultural contexts and preferences that can exist across regions and languages; it’s important to address these when setting up your multilingual site, to help deliver a familiar customer experience that drives user trust and positive sentiment. I’ve covered these considerations in more detail in my previous international ecommerce summary, but the principles remain largely the same for any multilingual website. Some of the key elements you may need to look at include:
User research is incredibly valuable in helping you create an accurate and holistic picture of the disparate needs, motivations, expectations and behaviours of your audience, so be sure to build these activities into your plan so that you can capture regular, relevant insight to support design and development decisions.
Creating a successful multilingual website requires you to go beyond content translation, and think carefully about what your users need and expect, as well as the goals you want to achieve as a business. Get it right though and you’ll open your products and services up to a much wider audience, helping maximise your revenue potential and drive future scalability and growth.
At Box UK we have a strong team of bespoke software consultants with more than two decades of experience in a range of enterprise CMS implementation services, as well as bespoke software development. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can help you, contact us on +44 (0)20 7439 1900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.