Why do companies need multilingual websites? Doesn’t everyone who’s doing international business just speak English anyway? What is multi language website best practice? These and other questions around developing a multilingual website strategy were part of my discussion with Stirling Austin for International Expansion Explained episode 10.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that localisation is a key pillar that supports your international expansion, and whilst, yes, you CAN do business in English most places in the world, having at least some translated content will be a big help. It makes the decision of the buyer to select YOU over all of your competition easier if you offer localised content.
That’s the very short answer, so read on to learn more…
Table of Contents
Let me introduce Stirling
Stirling Austin has created, managed, sold, acquired and merged manufacturing, service and distribution businesses in the UK, France and across Europe, starting 4 companies and two business units from scratch.
Now based in Manchester, he runs Pixel Executive, a web design agency with specific expertise in building multi language websites for companies expanding into new international markets.
You can see that that’s a lot of international commercial experience, which is what forms the basis of Stirling’s competence in multilingual website strategy.
In addition to all of that, he took an extended mid-career side step to build a business as a big band leader and musician, something that was ended by the pandemic…
He enjoys the combination of intercultural, commercial and technical expertise that he now employs to build international websites for SMEs.
Why do Companies need Multilingual Websites?
This should be a first step for most small or medium companies who are looking to expand internationally. Yes, of course you can do most day to day business transactions in English but if you want to be able to communicate with all layers of a company then you need to speak their language. Same goes for any websites directed at end consumers. Having a multi language websites really helps you extend your reach beyond those people who choose to read in English (or whatever your domestic language is).
Unlike Europe, where most people have a second language to at least some level of proficiency, it can be hard to convince native English speakers, be they British or American, of the necessity of multi language websites. The Brits due to their island mentality and the Americans perhaps because their domestic market is so huge, that international expansion isn’t always perceived as an attractive option.
Make it easy to work with you (rather than your competitor)
Your online presence is the first point of contact these days for most potential overseas partners so it makes sense, to make it as convenient as possible for them to decide they want to work with you. With a good multilingual website strategy your homepage can become the modern day equivalent of a virtual salesman who never sleeps.
Multi Language Websites are Cost Effective
If you look at it that way (as a sales tool) and compare the costs of a localised online presence to those of a local organisation on the ground (eg €100000 – €150000 basic set up) then you can see that the investment pays off from the start.
It’s also cheaper to have multilingual websites than to maintain local websites in each region that you are working
Even if you don’t actually have a distribution partner in that market yet, following multi language website best practice can help you begin to build your brand online, which in turn will give you an advantage once the day comes that you begin active selling. Providing local language content helps to build trust and enhances your reputation. Putting it succinctly, it converts better than a single language option too precisely for this reason.
In some regions it’s required by law to provide local language on all web information accessible in that region (& in others it’s merely a guideline). Such regions include:
- China: The Cyberspace Administration of China requires that websites operating within the country provide information in Chinese.
- Europe: The European Union has guidelines in place that encourage companies to make their websites available in the official languages of EU member states.
- Russia: Russia’s Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection requires that certain types of information, including official government information, be made available in Russian.
- Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) requires that all website content that is accessible within the country be in Arabic.
- South Korea: The Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) requires that all website content that is accessible within the country be in Korean.
- Singapore: The Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore requires that all website content that is accessible within the country be in English.
- Thailand: The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) of Thailand requires that all website content that is accessible within the country be in Thai.
It’s important to note that these regulations may change over time and it’s always a good idea to check with local authorities and consult with legal experts to ensure that you are compliant with the local laws and regulations.
How do you find a multilingual website vendor? Which questions should you be asking?
If you’re looking to take your business international then the best option is to structure your business (& www) that way from day 1. If you neglected to do that, then this should be your opportunity to completely overhaul your website.
What is your experience in developing and maintaining multilingual websites? Can you provide examples of similar projects you have completed in the past?
Work with a specialist, not just a generic web developer. When I introduced Stirling at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the commercial experience he has and this is really a key when looking to find a multilingual website vendor.
It’s important that your partner for such an important project understands what you are trying to do in your overseas markets and doesn’t just focus on the all the whistles and bells that modern technology would allow you to build in.
Translation and localisation
How do you handle the translation and localisation of content for different languages and cultures?
I have a few posts on this site already talking about the importance of good localisation and even transcreation. It’s really not just about translating the words, but about recreating the customer experience that your domestic clients receive, but in a different cultural and linguistic setting.
Don’t undervalue the benefit of having excellent commercial translations of your content.
Do you have experience of optimising websites for search engines in different languages? What about for different algorithm requirements (eg. for China)
International SEO is an entirely new ninja level compared to simply working in one single market environment & Google isn’t the search engine of choice in every locality!
Navigation and usability
How do you ensure that the navigation and usability of the website is consistent across all languages?
Think about the user experience now for your website in your home language. Ask yourself if it’s really ideal or if your page has become a kind of Frankenstein that you’ve added bits to as time goes on, till it’s really a bit of a mess.
Whilst ideally you should structure your site that way from the beginning, these kind of multi language websites can be the perfect opportunity to overhaul your site from the ground up, so you need someone who can do that in the best way.
What technical capabilities do you have for developing and maintaining a multilingual website?
This isn’t as simple as just activating a couple of plug ins in the back end and uploading the files you translated with Google. For a start, you need to make sure that the loading time of the page will be fast enough and there are more things to consider.
Anyone who’s ever tried to do something fancy on their own site will know that there are seemingly simple tasks that just suck your time, without you being able to get the finished product to look exactly how you want. Now think about adding say a language that reads from right to left such as Hebrew or Arabic – hours of “fun” if you’re not a specialist.
Maintenance and updates
How do you handle ongoing maintenance and updates for multilingual websites?
Bells & whistles are all well and good, but realistically speaking you want to be able to easily update your site without having to engage a developer for each sentence. That implies that the basic maintenance to keep your site safe and running fast should also be kept as slick as possible to optimise your running costs and time.
Resources and support
What resources and support do you provide to ensure the success of multi language websites?
If you’re working across time zones, this can be an issue, but even if the time differences are just an hour or two, you need to know that should something go wrong, you’ll be supported by your vendor.
How will we communicate during the development and post-launch of the website?
This is an important aspect of the support and your needs may vary depending on your experience in this field.
By asking these questions (I marked them all in purple for ease of reference), you can gain a better understanding of the vendor’s capabilities, experience and approach to multilingual website development and be more confident in your decision to work with them. Of course, you’re going to want to ask for costs, timelines and references as you would for other projects too, but these are the main questions that may be specific to such an international project.
Multi Language Website Best Practice – How a Project might look
It’s not just you who needs to ask the right questions to find a multilingual website vendor, it’s also that service provider who is going to be asking you some questions…at least if they know what they are doing!
It’s important that your website developer understands what you are trying to do internationally in order to design the site around the “job” that it’s intended to do. So that might include questions around your business objectives such as:
- Where are you exporting to?
- Who are your target clients?
- Who should the website address?
- Why do you want to expand internationally?
If you have a clear picture what you are looking to achieve with your website then that should give you the languages that you need to be available in (as you know which markets you’re targeting.)
Is the challenge linguistic or cultural?
It’s really essential to work with a professional translator to ensure that you don’t just have the right words, but that the tone of voice is correct for engaging with your clients and growing your brand reputation internationally. (Don’t underestimate the cost to your business of getting this wrong!)
You might even find that completely different messaging is needed for your chosen market, so having a pro help with the transcreation is really essential.
Do you know how to communicate to those markets? (Remember this can be very different to your home market). For example Israelis think nothing of using WhatsApp and gmail for their business interactions, but those are frowned upon by Germans. The Middle East has a totally different business culture that you need to adapt to.. Or the Chinese like to use WeChat to communicate and the Koreans KakaoTalk.
Your target should be to work with a Global Design
If you want to make your site easier to manage and maintain, it pays to invest the brain power and time into creating a great base version of your website as the global design. (In fact your service provider shouldn’t agree to start work on any other languages before you’ve finalised the home language copy and design!).
The ongoing maintenance & updates will be much easier if the icons and colours for example are standardised. Yes, you might have to exchange some text sections or swap out pictures to achieve a cultural fit but a global design will save you a lot of headaches.
Otherwise, each time you make any kind of update you’ll unleash a ripple effect technically in the back end if everything needs to be manually changed. This isn’t only time consuming and expensive, it’s also prone to mistakes.
That’s why it’s much better to set up your site the right way from the start as it’ll save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
Be minimal in your approach
Think of multi language websites like a workhorse in your organisation or a virtual salesperson. You don’t want to weigh them down with unnecessary details, but to keep things simple with compact text. It’s like an elevator pitch for your business so you need to grab a potential customer’s attention so that they immediately grasp WHY they should work with you.
Does the copy make sense? Is the presence of each individual word justified?
Structure the site around how you would sell your company and build the content around that, and base the design on the content. Lots of designers would focus on the optics rather than considering how the business works.
HOW will visitors be accessing your site?
One of the “typical” issues with multilingual websites are the load times (which obviously can get you penalised by Google) so keeping text to a minimum can help. You do need to consider though how your site will look on mobile (again a reason for “less is more”) & that certain markets are “mobile first”. That includes regions such as Asia, especially China, or many parts of Africa.
UX (User Experience) is key!
A smooth experience for all visitors is more important than any fancy graphics. Consequently, your global design doesn’t need to be elaborate but it does need to be well laid out with a good interface and colour scheme.
Using minimal widgets and plugins will help to keep things loading fast.
As I mentioned above, even if your site has been working well domestically, an international expansion is the time to examine the overarching architecture and decide whether things need an overhaul.
A microsite is NOT the answer!
For multi language websites to convert as well abroad as in your domestic market then you need to invest as much thought into the structure as for the original version. Don’t just make a microsite with minimal functionality and wonder why it isn’t converting!
An investment in your future
Even if you’re not yet selling abroad, your website can obviously showcase your services and lay some foundations of your brand building for a range of markets.
If this is the stage that you are at, then probably you can get away with covering various markets with 1 language (eg. French to cover also French speaking Belgians and Swiss, Spanish to cover both Spain and Spanish speakers in the Americas). It’s not a long term solution for when you begin to sell there, but could be an option if you just need to communicate who you are and what you do.
Key Points Round Up of Multilingual Website Strategy
So when thinking about multi language website best practice and defining your strategy make sure you consider the following points:
- Audience: Determine which languages your target audience speaks and prioritise them. Make sure you also know HOW they are searching and with which kind of device.
- Content: Create high-quality, localised content that is tailored to each language and cultural group. As time goes on you will probably want to add natively created content specific to that language group, but for the beginning localisation will be enough to keep on top of.
- Navigation: Make sure that the navigation of the website is intuitive and easy to use in all languages – if it doesn’t make sense in your base language, you’ve got little chance of it working well in the other languages.
- SEO: Optimize the website for search engines in each language to increase visibility and drive traffic. This is obviously the ideal situation but of course takes time and resources to implement well & is a whole other rabbit hole of specific knowledge!
- Localisation: Adapt the website to local customs, cultures, and conventions in each language. Don’t skimp on this – it can break your chances of expansion if done badly. During the project phase, don’t underestimate the time required to get this done really well.
- Testing: Test the website thoroughly in all languages to ensure that there are no technical issues or errors. Just because things work in one language version doesn’t mean that’ll be the case across the board (& it can be one of the most frustrating parts of the process ?)
- Maintenance: Multilingual websites should be designed up front so that the maintenance and updates are as simple to carry out as possible. You need to create a plan together with your service provider for maintaining and updating the website in all languages on a regular basis. Some things you can probably do yourself and for others, you’ll need more specialised support.
- Resources: Identify the necessary resources, including budget, personnel, and technology, to implement and maintain a multilingual website strategy. Remember this isn’t a “set it & forget it” kind of project, but you need to update your content regularly, same as for your native language.
Remember that whilst you need a certain amount of input to manage multi language websites, they are still one of the most cost effective tools for brand building and sales that you can introduce into your collection.
You can watch the full interview with Stirling below :
If you’d like to know more about working with Stirling, you can contact him here:
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