Can a Multilingual Website Benefit Your Business?

Paul Bullock

Published Tue 23 Sep by Paul Bullock

This article gives clear examples of how multilingual websites work for businesses online, and gives readers practical guidance on how to optimise their website for multinational users.

Is a Multilingual Website for You?

Have you got a business that could target a worldwide market? Having a website that has multilingual capabilities might be exactly what you need to promote your business further afield. But as with anything web-related, there is a right way and a not so right way to do it. This guide is to help you consider the benefits of having a multilingual website. I will give you some practical guidance to help you plan and implement it with your chosen web designer.

What is a Multilingual Website?

A multilingual website is, simply, one on which content is written and appears in more than one language. When we say ‘content’, we are referring to static content such as product and services pages, headings such as main links and internal links, and updated content such as blogs and articles.

While the information that is displayed is often the same in essentials, it might be tailored to appeal to different audiences.

So what Benefits can a Multilingual Website Offer to Your Business?

  •  Worldwide Appeal: Helps you to target a global market
  • Borderless Marketing: The internet by its very nature is multinational and multilingual - it crosses borders and boundaries and there are literally no limits to the target audience you can reach. It just takes a little bit of research into a culture and language to corner and cater for a niche market overseas
  • Effective Communication: According to the research firm IDC, web users are four times more likely to both engage with and purchase products from a business which talks to them in their own language
  • Potential for More Conversions: Forrester Research found that those visiting a website stay there twice as long if the content on the site is in their native language. And we all know that the longer your visitors stay on your site, there is more chance they will convert from browsers to active, loyal customers. Conversion rates increase the longer your visitors stay on your site

Considerations when Designing a Multilingual Website

 1. The importance of language code specification: It is good practice to identify the language of a web page in its HTML code. 

Why?

The main reason is that it is an accessibility issue. For people who may have sight-related problems and use assistive devices such as screen readers, it is useful to have the language specified in the coding of each web page. This is because screen readers cannot, from merely reading the text, identify which specific language it is written in. For the language to be correctly and helpfully interpreted, the language must be specified in the code. Up to date screen readers are able to speak numerous modern languages using the correct accent and pronunciation: this means an enhanced user experience because of its clarity - and a positive user experience is what we’re all after, after all!

Practical Guidance

  • If your site is a predominantly UK site, you may want to distinguish between American English and British English by using a four-letter language code “en-GB”. It can be jarring for an English website visitor to be met with American spellings. It will seem unfamiliar to them and will not add to their user experience. The same is true vice versa, of course
  • Setting the correct language of a specific web page will mean you can avoid your international visitors becoming confused and frustrated. For example if your content is in German but your language is set to English, a screen reader or other assistive device would communicate your content to German visitors in an English accent with pronunciation that could be confusing (not to say inappropriate and annoying) to them. Think back to the primal brain when it comes to web user experience. People like familiarity and to absorb information with the least possible effort on their part - setting the correct language is easy to do and can greatly enhance your users’ visit
  • Google webmaster tools advises that you use the robot.txt element to prevent search engines crawling the automatically translated pages on your site. Pages translated automatically don’t always make sense to users and can lead to a negative user experience. This also stops the search engines seeing your translated pages as duplicate copy, which is considered a black hat technique in terms of search engine optimisation (and is therefore to be avoided)

2. Websites that have multiple languages: Sometimes you may want to include content that is not original to the language in which your website is written. For example, an English writer may want to directly quote from a French poet. Most of the page will be written in English but this quote would be presented in its original language of French.

 Practical Guidance

  • This is easily done with some simple changes to the coding on your web page. Your web designer should be aware of the ‘lang’ attribute which can isolate one particular piece of text from the others and enables screen readers to interpret and pronounce it correctly

3. How does Google recognise different languages on web pages? 

Every website designer and owner wants to do all they can to optimise their web pages for search engines, and no article on multilingual sites would be complete without a mention of Google. Whether your site is favoured or booted out by Google and other search engines is of constant concern, so here are a couple of insider tips you can follow to ensure your website is optimised in terms of how your multilingual content is organised and displayed.

Practical Guidance

Image of The North Face Home Page showing various flags for language selection

This is an example of a multilingual website that Google would love. Above, you can see the German version of The North Face's Home Page. In the top left hand corner, the user can choose which language they would like the page to be displayed in. This is indicated simply by clicking on the appropriate flag. This works for users because it is a symbol that is familiar. It works for Google because it means that there are separate pages for the various languages.

This site allows the user to choose by hovering over the name of their language, and presents him / her immediately with the drop down list, in their own language, of the various pages they can browse.

Practical Guidance

  • Google prefers websites which have internal links to pages in different languages
  •  With this in mind, we recommend you post links (such as in the above examples) rather than have different languages all on the same page
  • For your website to show up in appropriate search results, it is helpful if your domain name is tied to a specific country. Amazon, for example, have different domains in different countries: amazon.co.uk for the UK, amazon.de for Germany and amazon.ie for Ireland to name a few

4. The direction of the language: If you are adapting the design of your website so that you can have different versions displaying in different nations / languages, it is useful to consider the direction of the text in that language. European languages such as English, French and German go across the page from left to right, but Hebrew, Urdu and Arabic go across from right to left. Savvy companies who really want to appeal to a wider, mulinational audience, will design different versions of their website so that it is a ‘home from home’ to people of all nationalities. This makes their website (and therefore their products and services) accessible to a wider audience. It offers customers familiarity and as we know, this makes them feel more welcome, relaxed, and willing to deal with a particular company. It shows that the company has thought about, and wants to work to cater for, their needs.

Image of screenshot of Etisalat Home Page showing left to right web page design

This is how Etisalat’s website appears to us when we search for it in the UK.

  • Notice that the logo is in the typical positioning of top left hand corner, with the main links / headings following its line across the page from left to right
  • The text (over the banner image) is left aligned. For visitors from the UK, this is a familiar layout. We know what to expect and where to find what we’re looking for. In short, we feel ‘at home’

Now look at this version of the same company’s web page designed for a different target audience:

Screenshot of Home Page for Etisalat, with right to left design

  • Possibly the first thing you will notice is that there is a completely different banner image on this version of the Home Page. This shows that for each version, the web designers have obviously thought carefully about what will appeal more to the niche target audience
  • You will also notice that the logo is on the right hand side top corner instead of the left. This is typical of mirror design - where elements are reversed so that the UK site will look like a mirror-image of this original one
  • The text is right-aligned which is appropriate for the language specified

5. Considering special characters: We’ve discussed the actual words of different languages and how these might be interpreted and presented in the optimal way for a positive user experience across the globe. But what about special characters specific to certain languages? Getting these right, so that they are correct and display correctly, is essential to support a user’s understanding and positive view of your website. Special characters include accents (for example the umlaut in German words such as ‘über’).

 Practical Guidance

  • Selecting ‘unicode’ when adapting your website for multilingual purposes is optimal
  • Unicode includes special characters from most world languages so you are more likely to get it right if you use this system
  • Unicode has the benefit of being supported by a large proportion of operating systems

6. Font Sizes: When considering how to adapt your website for a multilingual audience, remember that one font size may not be appropriate for all languages. For example, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic may be difficult to read if they are set the same font size as you would typically use for European languages such as French, Italian or English.

Practical Guidance

  • Remember that it is more difficult to read online than from print, so helping out your readers a little and making it easier for them to see your links, content and calls to action will benefit both them and you
  • If you are using languages such as Chinese, it is worth increasing the font size to make it more legible online

 7. The length of words

Take a look at these two pieces of text, a snippet from one of our articles. On the left is the English original version and on the right is the same passage translated into Chinese. Notice that the Chinese version takes up considerably less room than does the English one.

This is something to consider when planning the design and layout of your multilingual website.

 Practical Guidance

  • In your design, features such as search boxes may need to be adapted in terms of size depending on which language users will be typing in to them. If your site is being adapted for the German or Italian language, for example, they would have to be longer than those intended for Japanese users because the latter language contains shorter words. German users may find it confusing and frustrating to see some of their search term disappear as they type lengthy words into the search box
  • A useful tip is to get your content translated before you adapt the design - this way, you will have all the necessary knowledge so the features can be designed specifically with users in mind
  • It’s worth thinking about any colloquialisms or idioms you might have used within your content. Will this translate well (or at all?) in the other languages you are going to link to on your website? For example, in the UK, everyone knows that ‘Bob’s your uncle’ is a shortcut phrase indicating everything is going your way, but would international users understand this? You may want to reword some of your content to make it as clear as possible for multinational visitors

Short space : Chinese, Korean, Japanese

Medium space : English

Long space : Russian, German, Italian

And Finally...

A Note or Two on SEO

  • Remember: search terms that are popular in English may not be so in other countries
  • As we all know, finding appropriate keywords (both long-tail and short-tail) is key to any website’s success
  • Unfortunately there is no magic shortcut on this one - it requires a bit of time and effort to do some homework on the keywords that you could target in different countries

What are your thoughts on multilingual websites? Use our comments section below to share your experience and knowledge. Or if you have anything you would like to ask that is not covered in this article, visit our ask an expert page!

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