Attract International Customers with a Multilingual Website

Your business has grown to an extent that you now feel ready to cater to an international market. Understandably, you’ll have to make some adjustments in your website. For one thing, you’ll have to speak the language of your international target markets.

Attract International Customers with a Multilingual Website

This means that if you want to extend your brand’s reach to, say, three international markets, then your website needs to “speak” three more languages. You’ll therefore need to convert your website into a multilingual or multi-regional site.

What is a Multilingual/Multi-Regional Website?

As the name suggests, a multilingual website is a site that offers content in several different languages. A multi-regional website, on the other hand, is a site that targets consumers in different countries. In many cases, a multi-regional website is also multilingual. For example, if you run an American company that also targets the Canadian and Latin American markets, your Canadian website could have both English and French versions, while your Latin American website has both Portuguese and Spanish versions.

Why Make Your Website Multilingual?

English is the universal language, which means people from all over the world understand it well enough, right? So why is there a need for you to offer content in different languages if you want to target consumers from different countries? Setting up a multilingual website is a complex process, so why do you need to go through the hassle if your audience can understand English, anyway?

What you may not realize is that people generally appreciate a website more if the content is written in their own language. In fact, a research firm has found that people are four times more likely to make a purchase on website that speaks their language. Furthermore, site visitors have also been found to stay longer on a website that’s in their native language and content written in the native tongue is often considered more important than low prices. Surprising, but true.

Even from the point-of-view of search engines, it is important to have a multilingual website if you’re targeting a global audience. Remember that Google strives to give users the best possible search experience. This is why it is currently giving more value to localized web pages, both in terms of location and language.

Planning Your Multilingual Website

The first thing you need to ask yourself when planning to set up a multilingual website is this: “What specific countries will I target?” If one or more of the countries you plan to target has more than one official language, you’ll also have to ask yourself if you’ll be making all of those languages available or just one of them. If you’ll make just one language available, then you’ll have to decide which language that is. Your answers to these initial questions will form the foundation of the entire project.

Once you’ve decided which countries to target, it is important for you to do some research on the administrative and legal requirements that may affect the project. These requirements could dictate such things as your eligibility to use country-specific domain names. Speaking of domain names, it pays to remember that Google differentiates between these types of domain names:

  • ccTLDs – These domains are country-specific (.au for Australia, .de for Germany, etc.). This is generally the best sign that your website is targeted for a specific country. The advantages of choosing this type of domain name include clear geo-targeting, easy separation of sites, and the irrelevance of server location. It can, however, be more expensive, require a greater infrastructure, and potentially involved availability issues.
  • gTLDs – These domains aren’t specific to any country (.com, .org, .net, etc.). Domains like .asia and .eu are also considered gTLDs because they’re specific only to a certain region, but not a country. This type of domain name has the advantage of being easy to set up and allowing different server locations. Geo-targeting can be done with Webmaster Tools and separation of sites can be done easily enough.

You’ll have to decide which domain names to use and what structure your multilingual website is going to follow. Bear in mind that geo-targeting is not that easy to determine on a page-by-page basis. You therefore need to make sure the URL structure you adopt makes it easy to segment the different parts of your website for purposes of geo-targeting.

Easy and Effective URL structure
Make sure the URL structure you adopt allows for easy segmenting of the different parts of your website for geo-targeting purposes. Flickr.com photo by Stéfan

Setting Up Your Multilingual Website

There are several things you need to take into consideration when you’re finally ready to set up your multilingual website. These considerations will help ensure the overall success of your site.

1. Language

Try to stay away from automatic translation software when you offer content in various languages. If you have to use such software for any reason, it would be best to have a qualified translator review the translation before you publish it to make sure the message is accurately and clearly communicated. You should also be careful about idiomatic expressions and popular English terms; the literal translation may not be the best way to put the message across in another language.

2. Culture

Your multilingual website should go beyond speaking the same language as your target audience. It should also be culturally relevant so you can establish an emotional connection with your audience. You could, for example, adopt a more vibrant color scheme for your Spanish website, knowing that the Spanish community appreciates splashes of color. Cultural sensitivity may also be manifested in the examples you use in your web content.

3. Text

Remember that there are languages that use characters instead of letters and that computers deal with numbers rather than letters. For purposes of setting up a multilingual website, it may be best to use UTF-8, a variable-length encoding for Unicode. UTF-8 has the advantage of allowing you to use the characters of various languages.

4. Color

In many cases, the color of a website is related to the nature of the business. Environmental companies are likely to have a lot of green on their site, while a beach resort will likely have a blue background for their website. For a multilingual site, however, you’ll also have to take your target market into consideration. Note, for instance, that a green hat is a symbol for someone’s wife cheating on him in China and that while purple denotes royalty in the West, it is the color of mourning in Thailand.

5. Access

Make sure your multilingual site is easily accessible from your English site. You have a global navigation tab at the top right portion of your English website, right? Well, you should make sure site visitors can access the multilingual site from that tab. Another option would be to create an “entrance page” where visitors can choose their preferred site language.

6. Navigation

Most English websites have a menu bar on the left side. It may be a good idea, though, to move the menu bar to the right for versions targeted at “right-to-left” languages like Arabic. Although this isn’t a requirement, it can certainly make site navigation more intuitive, which can make it easier for visitors to browse your website. Alternatively, you could opt for a horizontal menu bar at the top so you won’t have to amend the general design for the other versions of your site.

7. User Expectations

Be sure to set the right expectations by giving notice if certain links lead to “English only” content, an external website, or if a certain software or application is required to access a particular content.

8. Toggle

If there are comparable pieces of content on your English and multilingual sites, visitors should be able to toggle between them without necessarily going through the Home page.

9. Functionality

Just as you ensure optimum functionality for your English website, you should also provide such functionality on your multilingual site. At the very least, the site should have “Print this page” and “Email this page” functionalities. It’s also a good idea to enable users to subscribe to email alerts, podcasts, and RSS feeds, among other things. Remember as well that online users generally appreciate interactive features on a website; it would certainly be wise to add such features to your multilingual site.

10. Maintenance and Comparability

Update your multilingual website regularly and make sure each version always has fresh content. In short, you should manage your multilingual sites just as you would your English website. You never know how many of your multilingual site visitors also visit your English site regularly; it’s best to make sure their experience on all versions of your site is consistent in terms of quality.

Keep Your Site's All Versions Consistent
Make sure that all versions of your website remain consistent in terms of quality. Flickr.com photo by IntelFreePress

Managing a Multilingual Website for SEO

Earlier we discussed how you should set up your multilingual website with your target audience in mind. This time, we’ll look at how you can ensure that your site is optimized properly for the appropriate language.

1. Make the language obvious

Remember that Google determines the language of web pages based only on immediately visible content. It would therefore be wise for you to avoid side-by-side translations and use the same language in the content and navigation tabs of each web page. If there are automatically translated pages on your website, it would be a good idea to keep search engines from crawling these pages by using robots.txt.

2. Make each version easily discoverable

Avoid using cookies to display translated versions of your web pages. Rather, have a separate URL for each language version of your website and then cross-link the different versions of each web page. In case a Spanish visitor happens to land on your German website, cross-linking will allow him to get to the right version in just one click. You should also avoid auto redirects based on perceived language, as this could prevent both users and search engines from viewing all versions of your website.

3. Choose your URLs wisely

The URL of a page can be a very strong signal as to the language of the page itself. For example, a “.ca/fr” URL will immediately tell both users and search engines that the page is from a Canadian site targeting the French region of the country. Using URLs that signal language may also make it easier to discover issues related to multilingual content on your website.

Dealing with Duplicate Content on Multilingual Websites

You probably know by now that duplicate content is a serious issue in the world of SEO. Google, for one, penalizes sites with duplicate content. This may come as a concern to you, especially since it is common for multilingual websites to have the same or similar content in the different versions of the website. This shouldn’t be a problem for content that’s translated into different languages and modified to suit the culture and sensibilities of a different set of audience.

The problem of duplicate content for multilingual sites usually arises when you provide the exact same content for basically the same set of audience on different URLs or for different sets of audience who speak the same language. For example, “website.fr” and “website.com/fr” could have the same French content or “website.com” and “website.ca” may have the same English content. In such cases, the best thing for you to do is to choose a preferred version and then redirect the other version to that one.

Should You Create Social Media Accounts in Different Languages?

Now you know how beneficial it is to have a multilingual website if you want to promote your business globally. Is this true as well for marketing on social media? Well, there have been a few success stories involving marketing in different languages on social media. Note, however, that a poorly-executed multilingual social media campaign can do more harm than good. So if you’re not a hundred percent sure that you can pull-off such a campaign, it may be best to wait.

One more thing you may want to consider is that even the most popular social networking sites aren’t really as popular in other countries as it is in the United States. Take Twitter, for example. It may be one of the world’s most popular social sites, but it is banned in China (except within the Shanghai free-trade zone), so you can’t use it for social media marketing targeted at the Chinese market, right?

A multilingual social media campaign therefore involves a lot more than maintaining social media accounts in different languages. It also involves a complex process of finding out which social networking sites can best be used for marketing purposes in each country you’re targeting. Again, it’s best to wait until you’ve gotten the hang of social media marketing and solid strategies for multilingual marketing on social platforms are in place.

Conclusion

SEO in general is an ever-changing process and multi-regional/multilingual SEO is no different. We can only expect this topic to expand in the future, with new strategies being adopted and new ideas being introduced. What’s good about this is that it can only help you improve the overall performance of your business. The key is to make all aspects of your Internet marketing campaign work well together, and your efforts will be sure to pay off.

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