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6 Best Practices of Effective Multilingual Websites
For several global businesses and international bodies, multilingual websites are an essential touchpoint for their target audience and can even be their only presence in a foreign market, which is why it’s so important to get it right.
But, oh, how things go ever so nightmarishly wrong. Broken links. Ballooning budgets. Cultural missteps. Google spam penalties. To avoid the worst pitfalls of multilingual websites and website localization, we’ve looked at several examples of effective international websites as well as a few of our own case studies to see what went right.
In the end, we narrowed it down to six basic principles that should guide your website development process. But first, I’d like to answer an important question.
Why have a multilingual website?
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Let’s talk numbers: 2020 CSA Research findings indicate that 65% of consumers prefer online content in their own language, while 40% refuse to make a purchase on websites not available in their language. Put another way, translating your website into another language can unlock up to 40% growth, whether it’s driving sales, donations, or other grassroots actions.
Website translations can also be an easy way to scale your content marketing campaign without necessarily creating more original content. When done properly, multilingual websites also reap the long-term benefits—and low-hanging fruits—of search engine optimization (SEO) in foreign languages.
In the end, however, the real question your business has to answer is whether those additional languages make sense for your target market. That brings us to our six best practices for effective multilingual websites:
1. Understand your target audience
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This is obvious, but foundational. Taking the time to do market research and build audience personas, or typical descriptions of your target audience, will make sure that it’s even worth developing that multilingual website. If your target market has a high rate of English literacy, like Singapore or the Philippines, then it makes less sense to offer a multilingual website than if your target market were in Thailand or Vietnam.
The Pulses Asia website, for example, promotes U.S.-origin pulses (leguminous crops) in five Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. However, the website has only been translated into Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Sometimes it makes sense to have a country switcher instead of a language switcher, especially when there are local offices and country-specific services involved.
2. Streamline for website localization
Website localization means adapting your website to the local language and culture of your target market, so it’s no surprise why it’s often heard in the context of multilingual websites.
What you might not have heard is that localization can be a major headache if it’s not incorporated since the beginning of the web development process. Experienced web developers are able to “internationalize” the website by creating layouts and template graphics that will minimize duplicate work down the line. As a general rule, PAPER & PAGE develops and delivers websites with localization in mind, making it easier for clients to add this feature in the future.
This is probably the biggest logistical headache for UN organizations. The World Health Organization has managed to create a modular layout that can be mirrored horizontally to allow for right-to-left languages and rearranged depending on the priorities of the regional or country office.
3. Perform international SEO
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If the entire point of creating a multilingual website is to boost web traffic, then you can’t afford to skip this one. Optimizing all language versionsof the website for search queries in their respective languages will ensure that your website not only earns organic traffic in the long term but that you’re attracting the right audience.
Luckily, foreign-language keywords tend to be less competitive than those in English, so multilingual websites tend to gain easy wins in international SEO. Nonetheless, the difficulty of tackling industry-specific jargon, faithfully representing your organization’s tone and voice, and adhering to SEO best practices is one of the reasons why Google translations are typically inadequate.
The other reason? Google itself says that machine translation can be flagged as spam, undoing the entire purpose of multilingual websites.
The earlier the SEO research is conducted, the better. SEO research will inform both web development and translations. It can even offer insights into which topics take priority, which will support our next point.
4. Embrace the culture
Work with the culture; don’t tip-toe around it. This principle holds true in any localized marketing program, whether it’s social media outreach or website development. It’s important to strike a balance between brand consistency and cultural considerations.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has perhaps one of the most diverse language versions of its “Amazing Thailand” web property. From the fanciful video ad on its Italian site to the gold embellishments on its Chinese site, there’s a lot of variation reflecting the different cultural considerations of the target countries.
One of the strongest realizations of Amazing Thailand is undoubtedly the Japanese website, which adds icons to the navigation bar, makes liberal use of cartoon characters, and tags different content types with colorful labels. With 121,000 organic hits per month as of this article, the Japanese version of Amazing Thailand is a resounding success, especially when compared to the Chinese version’s 115 hits per month.
5. Maintain consistent user experience
If you want the other language versions of your website to be effective, they have to offer a consistent user experience befitting your brand. This may sound a little at odds with the other recommendations in this article, but a consistent user experience means foreign visitors will trust that their language version is just as functional, relevant, and reliable as the original website.
All too often, you’ll find under-served language versions of a website. Some of the most common offenses include outdated content, language switcher redirecting to the homepage, broken links, and mixed-language pages.
In the case of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, they worked with AgriSource and PAPER & PAGE to develop a regional website for Southeast Asia, a resource where consumers and restaurateurs can get inspired to put Alaska seafood on the dinner table and on their menus, respectively. We used a combination of machine translation and translators to manage bulk translations for the website, so that the same recipe is as easy to follow in Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, and Vietnamese as it is in English.
Bonus: since we streamlined for website localization from the get-go, we’re a well-oiled machine when it comes to updating web content.
6. Monitor performance
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Let’s say you’ve adhered to all the best practices of developing and designing a multilingual website, threading the needle between user experience and cultural personalizations: did it work?
The only way to know how well your website is working is by promoting and monitoring performance. By promoting the website, either through Google Ads or your social media platforms, you’ll be able to monitor how users interact with the different pages.
Thus begins your marketing department’s long and patient exercise in website whack-a-mole. They’ll have to track everything from traffic sources to bounce rates to backlinks to see which pages are doing well, which are underperforming, and why. Are there broken links? Do the images take too long to load? Are the pages ranking for the wrong search queries? Are they ranking at all?
A good web developer will have a systematic approach to ironing out the kinks and can even infer actionable insights about your consumer.
Web development is already something of an inexhaustible checklist without tacking on different languages. But the payoff is undeniable.
When we compared the websites of 32 competitors within the same industry and market, multilingual blogs on average enjoyed up to 500% the organic traffic of their English-only peers.