10 Steps to Building a Successful Multilingual Website

October 30, 2019

English is the world's most studied language. 

Nevertheless, English-speaking companies continue building bilingual and multilingual websites. Why? Globalization. According to recent data, only one fifth of people on Earth speak English, which, for businesses, means a huge chunk of the market is still waiting to be discovered. 

In this article, we will explain how to incorporate multiple languages on your website and maximize opportunities in the e-commerce arena. 

How to build a multilingual website

Are you ready to start tapping into the multilingual market? Use this guide to help you get started.

1. Define your expansion goals 

The first step is to decide which languages you will add to your website. The choice will depend on your geographic appetite (and audience), budget, and resources.

To be successful online and update the site on a regular basis you will need to have mother-tongue speakers in your team, and finding them might challenging—especially in our English-centric world where every other ad screams “Improve English online,” and no one pays much attention to local languages.

So, before building a multilingual website, answer these questions: 

Do you want to aim at a specific country or do you just need to translate your website without specific regional targeting?
Is there a market for your products? If so, can you compete on price, quality of service, and brand name?
How many languages are you able to budget? And how many employees do you need to plan and create content in all those languages?

2. Choose your domain strategy 

There are two ways you can build a multilingual website: through a subdomain approach or a separate domain approach. That means you can either have a single website domain with other-language linked pages or use separate domains to host the multilingual versions of your content.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. The subdomain approach is affordable—you won’t need to pay for dozens of URLs and domains—but it has a much higher risk of broken links. A separate domain approach is faster to set up and less risky in terms of bugs, but much pricier. 

3. Choose the right software 

The next step is to pick a CMS—a content management system that will help you create and manage digital content for your multi- or bilingual website. 

Two commonly used CMSs are WordPress and Joomla. Both are self-hosted, open-source CMSs that have been around for more than ten years.

The first has great extensibility, a huge support community, and relatively low development costs. The second has more advanced user management and flexibility for displaying non-standard content types.

But if we’re talking about building multilingual sites in particular, the main thing you need to know is that Joomla has inbuilt multilingual options meanwhile WordPress requires to install a plugin. You’ll want to check that your content management software will serve your multilingual needs and your budget.

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4. Pick a plugin 

If you choose a CMS that requires a plugin for multilingual content, you’ll need to choose another CMS tool before moving on. Fortunately, there are a lot of options. The most popular among them are WPML, Polylang, and Weglot.

WPML is considered the most frequently used, advanced, and feature-rich plugin. Polylang boasts around half a million users and is a great option if you plan on translating your content without the help of translation services. Weglot focuses on automatic translation, though you also have plenty of options for manual translation.

Whichever option you choose, be wary that some CMS tools are only compatible with WordPress.

5. Translate 

The biggest misconception about building a multilingual website is that installing a plugin will automatically translate all the content for you—but that is only partially true.

Yes, the above mentioned WPML is indeed a fantastic plugin that allows virtually any content on a website to be translated, but it isn’t made to do the actual translation. That’s what the WPML partners are for.

Do not rely solely on automatic translation tools and services. Have your content translated or at least checked by a real person. Even though it is not the most practical solution, hiring a group of freelance translators is the way to go. Human translators can analyze language from an emotional and contextual point of view, giving your text a more accurate translation.

6. Choose a place for a language selection menu 

As with any website, functionality and overall user experience (UX) have to be at the core of every decision you make. So one of your key tasks is to choose how users will select a language on your site.

One of the most trendy and effective ways to offer language selection options is in a conveniently-placed drop-down menu. 

Usually, these menus are located in the top-right corner of the homepage. That is the most universally recognized and obvious place to put them—users will instinctively take a glance there. 

drop-down menuSource 

Alternatively, you could simply add a list of languages to choose from in your website’s header, footer, or sidebar, depending on the design and your personal preferences. 

7. Design the language selection menu 

Once you’ve chosen a place for your menu, you can start thinking about its appearance. 

First of all, you have to list out all the languages that you’re going to offer your users. Then, you should consider how you’re going to list them on the menu and what order to follow. 

There are two ways companies typically approach this: by using flags or text. We advise you to stick with a text-based option. Flags do not stand for languages, they represent countries. 

The same language can be spoken in different countries—for instance, French in Canada or Spanish in Mexico—so using flags in a language selection menu may confuse some users.

language menu

8. Optimize 

Bilingual and multilingual websites need extra attention when it comes to SEO. A proper structure, language tags, and schema hacks for multiple locations will bring you the maximum number of visits from search engines.

Here’s a short checklist of best practices for multilingual optimization: 

  • Translate URLs
  • Research long-tail keywords in different languages
  • Use only high-quality translations
  • Translate meta descriptions
  • Use hreflang tags
  • Use plugins with robust multilingual SEO

9. Check your typography 

Typography is a vital detail that is really easy to neglect when you’re busy with design.

This includes the font and layout that you will use in your content. While a hand-written font may look great for English text, you need to check how readable is it going to be when you translate it to Russian or more complex languages like Mandarin or Farsi.

Always check your content to ensure readability in all the languages that you’re providing for your users. As a rule of thumb, when setting up a multilingual website, use Unicode, a platform that can encode characters from more than 90 languages.

Along with readability, you also need to check the format and alignment of your multilingual text. While it may seem okay for you to align your content on the left, for some people it may cause problems because they read from right to left. Because of this, you will sometimes need to flip or mirror the page.

10. Localize 

A multilingual website is not simply about translating the words correctly. If you create a multilingual e-commerce website, do not forget about currency switches and marketing sensitivities in various countries. 

Localizing your website also involves accurately translating a language as it is spoken in different countries. Even if a language is spoken around the world, there are different versions of it based on location. 

For instance, Dualoo, a Swiss company that operates in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria (all German-speaking countries), had to localize its website because there are a lot of different words for the same notion in each country. 

Users expect a warm welcome on your website—otherwise, they will be gone as soon as they arrive. So, getting the language straight and localizing for each country will minimize your bounce rate and improve SEO.

En conclusión

As you can see, building a successful multilingual website is no piece of cake. You need to handle a lot of tools and process a ton of information to provide your users with the best multilingual experience that you possibly can. But if take your time, have patience, and remain persistent, your new multilingual website will pay off. 

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