5 Steps to Design & Build a Multilingual Website

Helpful tips & best practices for a multi language website. Learn everything you need to know about designing & building a multi language website for your business.

How to make a multilingual website

Every business wants to expand their target market and what better way is there to expand it by approaching markets that speak another language?

By offering your customers a multilingual website, you can take your business internationally and expand your reach to new markets. According to recent statistics:

However, with building a multilingual website (or converting your existing one), there are definitely some challenge obstacles you’ll need to address and overcome.

In this article, I’m going to guide you through the steps you'll need to take, detailing everything you need to know about a multi language website – so you can minimize the risk of problems and maximize your opportunities. So, let’s jump straight into it!

DID YOU KNOW? A multilingual website is any website that offers content in more than one language whereas a multi-regional website is one that focuses on users in different countries. You may want to read this helpful guide from Google about multilingual content guidelines for search engines.

Step 1 – Translate Your Content

While not directly related to designing or building your website, this is perhaps the most important step you need to take. The first thing you’ll want to start doing is translating your content. Whether you’ve got several pages on your website or thousands of pages and product descriptions to handle, translating your content is going to be the most time-consuming task so you’ll want to get it started straight away.

Translating your content
Your first step is to translate your content for each page to the language you want your website to be in.

You’ll also want the translations to be accurate, so avoid free language translation tools.

QUICK TIP: While you may be tempted to use a free translation tool such as Google Translate, these tools are not always perfect (even though the service is regularly updated). Have your content translated by a real human!

Although this may be the most cost-effective solution, hiring a professional translating service or a freelance translator is a much accurate route to take. There are numerous translation services you could consider, such as International Translating or Big Assignments. This is because human translators have a much firmer grasp on a language, including aspects like concept, vocabulary and the overall feel of each sentence.

Step 2 – Decide on Your Multilingual Format

In short, there are two main ways you can approach designing a multilingual website. You can either:

1) Have a single website domain, where you’ll be able to take your website's single domain name and add subdomains (or subfolders) which contain the translated pages.

Multilingual single domain format
Here's an example of a single domain multilingual website for Samsung. Note that each language links to the same domain.

2) You can use separate domains to host the multilingual versions of your website such as having a separate co.uk and .fr. website.

Multilingual sepparate domain website
Here's an example of a multilingual website with separate domains for each language for Mitsubishi. Note that the domain ends in each country's specific IDN ccTLD, such as .es or .co.za.

There are pros and cons to both, which I’ve described below:

The Subdomain Approach

Pros

  • An affordable solution
  • No need to invest in dozens of URLS and domains

Cons

  • Will need to redirect pages
  • Higher risk of broken links
The Separate Domain Approach

Pros

  • A dedicated user experience, no matter what language they are using
  • Don’t have to redirect pages
  • Less time to set up
  • List risk of broken links

Cons

  • Can be very expensive
  • Means you have to manage and update several websites.

The Subdomain Approach – How to Build a Subdomain Layout

With a subdomain approach, you’ll simply be creating extra, linked pages to your existing English-written pages. For example, let’s say that you’re translating English into French, Spanish and German. Whereas you’ll have your English page, you’ll then need to create three other pages, one for each language and make subdomains for each country and users’ location. For example, es.yourwebsite.com where “es” is a subdomain for Spanish. Also, your website should have an option to choose other languages.

Multilingual subdomain layout

These pages will then need to be linked together in the same way in which your English-speaking pages are connected to the user can navigate easily through your website. It’s basically like a copy of your website, just in another language that sites parallel to your English website.

However, you’ll then need also to add a link for each English-speaking page so people who are using that page as their landing page (the first page they land on while accessing your website) can then quickly translate the content.

The Separate Domain Approach – How to Build a Separate Domain layout

The second approach you can take is investing in separate websites that will represent each language. While the main concern is budget (since you’ll be paying for separate domains and custom-URLs), there are many benefits to using this approach.

Firstly, you can write content specific for each country. Although this is possible using a sub-domain approach, things can very complicated when you’re trying to manage several layers to a website.

Instead, on a separate domain setup, you can keep everything so there’s no risk of content ending up on the wrong website. An example of this would be when you may be writing about certain topics that are relevant in the UK, but no other country. This means you can host only relevant content on each website, giving your customers a better collection of relevant content that they’ll be interested with.

Multilingual separate domain layout
The Guardian: the US and the UK editions

The second main benefit is how easily you can implement the multilingual format. This is because you can simply add a drop-down menu to every page of your website that links to the parallel page on the translated version of your website.

This means is simply doesn’t matter which page the reader lands on, they can simply click the drop-down menu (see below) and instantly be taken to the translated page (and entire website), so they can continue to browse your content effortlessly.

While potentially expensive, this is also the easier method to set up because you simply invest in another website and URL as you did with your original website and then just add the translated content. To make things even easier, you can simply copy your existing website onto the new domain and then just replace the content with the translated versions.

Step 3 – Implement a Language Selection Menu

As with any website, the functionality and overall user experience need to be at the core of every decision you make. If you already have a website that you’re going to convert, you’ll want to start by seeing where the design features detailed below are going to fit into your current theme. If you’re starting a new website, you can simply start from scratch.

Most importantly, you’ll want to consider how users are going to be able to choose which language they view your website in. If you look online for examples, one of the most popular and effective forms for selection is using a well-placed drop-down menu.

Multilingual website language selection menu
Amazon: Example of the drop-down menu

Typically, these menus are located in the top right-hand corner of the homepage and are a kind-of universal place to put them, meaning users will instinctively look here. Alternatively, another way you could implement the language change feature is by adding a list of languages to choose from.

You could add this to the header of your website, the footer or even into the sidebar, whatever you think looks good for the design that you’re using. It’s also worth noting that if you’re using a platform for your website, such as WordPress, there are many plugins and features you can use to make this task easier.

Step 4 – Format Your Language Selection Menu

Once you’ve decided on a design or feature that fits into your website’s theme, you can start by building the menu itself. Firstly, you’re going to want to start by listing out all the languages that you’re going to be offering.

Then, you’ll want to consider how you’re going to list them on the menu. There are typically two ways that businesses approach this; using flags or using text. Personally, I much prefer using a text-based approach since this is easy for users to recognize and define the language they want to use.

QUICK TIP: Stay away from using only flags on your menu. Remember that flags represent countries, not languages. What’s more, some languages will also have multiple languages spoken, and a language can be spoken in multiple countries. For example, Spanish (or versions of it) are spoken in countries all over the world.

Use a text-based option and remember to write the language in its native form. For example, German will need to be written as ‘Deutsch’, Spanish as ‘Español’ and French as ‘Français’. This is simply to provide your international users with a better UX (User Experience).

In most cases, many websites will choose to use a mixture of both text and flags where you’ll be able to identify the language that your user is looking for easily.

QUICK TIP: Be sure to scan your translated content and check for plagiarism. While your original content might not be plagiarized, your new content may be, so use plagiarism tools like Copyscape or Academized to check. Otherwise, you’ll risk damaging your website’s credibility and SEO ranking.

Step 5: Check Your Typography

The typography of your website in multiple languages is an important detail that so easy to overlook when you’re busy trying to design your website.

This includes the font and layout that you’re using for your content. While a hand-written font may look lovely for English text, you need to ask yourself just how readable is it going to be when you translate it to French or an even more complex language like Chinese or Arabic?

Multilingual website language typography

Always make sure you’re checking your content to ensure it’s readable for all the languages that you’re providing for your users. As a rule of thumb, when writing a multilingual website, it’s far easier to use Unicode, a platform capable of encoding characters from over 90 languages.

Mutlingual website unicode encoding

Hand in hand with the consideration above; you’re going to need to check the format and alignment of your text. While it may seem normal for you to align your text of the left-hand side of the page, some societies and cultures read from right to left, which means you’ll need to flip, or mirror, the page.

Remember the Little Details…

Through this detailed guide, we’ve covered quite a lot of the major designing and building points of a multilingual website, but it’s worth noting that you need to pay attention to the little nitty-gritty details to ensure that your website is perfect for users in other countries and other cultures.

For example, being aware of what a culture stands for and believes in is vital to your success. For example, you don’t want to upload an image or statement that another culture is going to find offensive. Be sure to check before going live.

Likewise, not every country uses the same format when it comes to displaying the date, which is something you’ll need to make sure is corrected when you’re translating and formatting a page. One of the big things some website builders miss is the CAPTCHA, if your website uses them.

Of course, letters and characters are different in different languages, and an English captcha may be impossible to type in using a foreign keyboard. The final thing you’re going to want to remember is how you present phone numbers. If you’re based in the UK, but your website is now operating in India, be sure to add the country code to the number so users can get in touch.

Conclusion

And that brings us to the end of this article on how to build a multilingual website. The main focus when designing your website is presenting your users with your USP (Unique Selling Proposition) as usual, by drawing focus onto providing your users with the best user experience that you possibly can. Take your time, get organized, and your new multilingual website is sure to be a success!

About the author


  • Brenda is a consultant and tutor for college students at Australian Help and has over 15 years of experience in business management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. She believes that constant learning is the only way to success. You can visit her personal blog at LetsGoAndLearn.com.

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