Expand Your Reach With a Multilingual Website That Speaks Your Audience’s Language

Oct 19 2022

English is the most spoken language in the world, but it’s only the “official” language in a small number of countries. That means millions of people across the globe speak a native language other than English. And since the worldwide web knows no boundaries, odds are that many non-English, or English as a second language (ESL) speakers are visiting your website.

Providing an online presence in the native language of your users improves their overall experience and expands your organization’s reach. Several factors may drive the need for a multilingual approach to your website.

  • Requirements in specific countries mandate that content is available to users in multiple languages
  • You have operations in countries that speak multiple languages, so employees and potential customers are not native English speakers 
  • Your organization is growing its business and expanding into new markets where English is not the primary language
  • You want to deliver an optimal experience that reaches your target audience and their sphere of influence in their native language

Still, there’s no question that creating your website in additional languages is a significant undertaking. It will take your team’s time, resources, and energy to make it happen. But don’t let that be a deterrent to moving forward — there are ways to make this endeavor manageable.

A “Good, Better, Best” Approach To Your Multilingual Website

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to delivering a multilingual website experience. A lot depends on your budget and the time you’re able to devote to the project. That’s why it can be helpful to embrace a “good, better, best” framework with viable options for a variety of scenarios. 

This framework also helps you scale and establish a multi-phase plan. For example, more complex sites might start with the “good” option and move to “better” and “best” in subsequent years. By weighing each option with the following considerations in mind, you can choose the best approach for your organization’s situation.

Good: Widgets, APIs, and Other Machine Translations

Widgets and APIs are a cost-effective way to provide content in many languages. Google Translate, for example, is a cloud-based API that currently supports 133 languages. When applied to the front end of your website, Google Translate allows a user to choose a language preference via a dropdown menu. Once a language is selected, the on-page content is automatically translated. 

However, widgets don’t always catch the nuances of a particular language, so translation quality may not meet your organization’s standards. Widgets are also not SEO optimized. Because translations are performed in real time and only show in the user’s browser, they do not get saved in the website, so translated pages won’t show up in search engines.  

Due to those limitations, you may want to leverage the multilingual functions of your CMS instead. When your system is configured to interact with a translation function, the English version of your content is tagged with the additional languages needed. Then, with the push of a button (and the work of a machine translator), you’ll receive translated versions of your content stored within your CMS. In this scenario, each time a user chooses to browse in their language, they see the version saved in your CMS (as opposed to the real-time translation they would see with the widget). 

Machine-produced translations carry similar quality risks as widgets. However, when a translated version of your content is saved in your CMS, it is available to be indexed by search engines. So if a user searches for a specific word or phrase in their language, they can find it on your site.

Overall, a machine translation approach is typically best suited for small budgets since no additional translations are needed. With the number of language options available, it’s also suitable if your organization needs translations outside the capabilities of your current resources.

Better: A Mix of Machine and Manual (Human) Translations

Machines enable you to quickly complete the heavy lifting of generating initial translations of your content. But efficiency is not the primary aim here. Effectiveness is. Therefore, to elevate the quality of a machine translation, consider bringing in a person to review and edit the work the machine produces. 

It can be fairly simple for staff members and/or third-party translators to edit machine-translated content saved within your CMS. Here, they can regionalize content, factor in local idioms, and ensure that special language characters are used appropriately. 

Including a human touch in your translation process is also beneficial for content that simply doesn’t translate. For example, machines may accurately translate the literal words of place names or addresses that include common words (like new, lake, or park). But that translation may not convey the actual meaning appropriately. Having a person review — and update — these elements ensures your translations remain understandable.

If you want more control over your translations or your content includes nuances that aren’t easily translated, then a hybrid approach is a viable option.

Best: Manual (Human) Translations

A fully manual translation process is the gold standard for a multilingual site experience. Yes, it represents a significant investment of both time and cost. And it may require you to source and manage a vendor if you don’t have translators available in-house. 

But manual translation is also the most effective and impactful solution, especially for organizations with regionally-based audiences. 

Why? With manual (human) translations, content is not just translated — it’s transcreated. Instead of a word-for-word translation on the page, the translator can recreate the feel and intent of the original content so that it reads as native speakers talk. And, of course, a fully human translation is also the best option to create content that’s fully optimized for readability and SEO value.

When your growth goals are dependent on your target audience receiving content in their native language — and you want to have complete control over the experience — manual translations deliver the ideal results.

Use Data to Prioritize Which Languages Your Site Will Support 

When expansion into new regions is part of your organization’s go-to-market strategy, the language priorities will likely already be established. However, if you need guidance on where to begin, start by looking at the data.

Website analytics provide a breakdown of the number of visitors to your site as well as their location and language preference. Establish benchmarks and watch for trends over time to inform your decisions about specific languages to offer.

For example, you might notice that 5% of your website visitors are native Spanish speakers. That is your benchmark. If you see that increase to 10%, you might consider translating key pages on your site. And if it increases to 50%, you now have a good indicator that your full site should be available in Spanish. 

Use the findings of your website data to help you determine which steps to take.
Use the findings of your website data to help you determine which specific languages to offer.

Translations Apply to More than Just Language

Although the language is a primary consideration for your multilingual site experience, it’s not the only element to consider. Your site’s design and user experience need to translate, too. 

Translating content typically results in a swell of word or character counts. Some languages will naturally result in longer content blocks that are difficult to consume in mobile and other formats. Therefore, you should review the content before translating to determine if any copy can be removed without impacting the overall message. That way, the length of the final translation will stay consistent with the English version, and your site will render effectively on all devices.

Depending on the language, there may also be stylistic elements to consider. For example, it’s important to ensure that natural language characters (including accents and other diacritics) are available in the default font. Languages that read right to left (like Arabic) or languages with special characters (like Mandarin) may also impact the layout of your site. So don’t just update everything in one fell swoop. Test the layout with translated copy on a few pages to see how it looks before moving on to additional pages. This will save valuable time and rework in the long run.

You’ll also want to consider images and colors used throughout your site. Pay particular attention to landscapes and people. When your audience reads your site in their native language, will they connect with what they see? Regionalized images and culturally-sensitive colors improve the overall experience and increase a user’s engagement.

Finally, review your site’s navigation. Think about the user journey for people who speak a particular language and how they will interact with your site. Are there areas users would benefit from seeing first? Elevate those sections or reorganize links to make information easy for them to find.

Translated copy may also need additional stylistic considerations depending on the language.
Translated copy may also need additional stylistic considerations depending on the language.

A Multilingual Approach Needs Forethought and Prioritization

Before you begin building a site in a new language, it’s important to plan and prioritize. Identify a core set of pages every visitor to your site should see. Work on translating those pages first and then prioritize the next grouping. For instance, you might decide that pages communicating your value proposition or the cost of your product or service should be available in all supported languages. But news stories and regional events don’t need to be broadly translated. 

In addition to prioritizing what existing content you’ll translate, you should create a decision process for new content added to your site. Ask questions like: Is this necessary to translate now? What languages require this content first? Or should it be added to the queue and addressed at a later stage? 

It’s not necessary to translate every page of your website into every possible language right away. Translating just five pages — and translating them well — into your priority languages can positively impact the overall user experience and encourage ongoing engagement with your business.

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