"Can't read, won't buy."
The title of a study of over 2,400 consumers sums up the appeal of a multilingual website: people simply prefer to buy from websites if they're in their native language. Over half of the consumers surveyed for the study only shopped at sites in their own language, and among the ones who browsed sites in other languages, only a quarter felt comfortable making buying decisions. It is easy to see then why business would opt for multilingual websites: offering their services and products in more than one language is a way to expand their market enormously.
But how difficult is it to localize and maintain a multilingual website? Glad you asked: Gobierno.USA.gov and Government Multilingual Websites Community have developed a list of ten best practices for multilingual websites that we're happy to share and discuss here.
This one should be obvious: users have to be able to read the site in the language of their choice. This doesn't only include all content but also navigation buttons, features and functions of the site. Machine translation is "strongly discouraged", even if a disclaimer is added, and every translation has to be reviewed by a qualified translation professional before it is posted.
Beyond the concerns of the language, it is important for multilingual websites to also address cultural considerations in order to connect with their audience. The key to a successful multilingual website is translation and localization by an expert who understands the target culture and can avoid potential localization problems and pitfalls.
The best multilingual website is useless if users can't find pages their language. Toggle buttons that allow users to easily switch languages have to be visible and easily accessible on every page, usually on the top right.
4. URL Strategy
A solid URL strategy is essential for marketing and search engine optimization. The Gobierno guidelines state that a "stand-alone, dedicated" URL should be used -- but they don't go into detail whether it should be a country code top level domain (yoursite.fr), a subdomain (fr.yoursite.com) or a subdirectory (yoursite.com/fr/). For more details on the advantages and disadvantages of each method, take a look at this Guide to Multilingual and Multiregional SEO.
5. Comparability and Maintenance
This is another big one: make sure the user experience on the different language subsites on your website is comparable -- and that you have plans in place how to keep it that way. Updates and maintenance on a multilingual website have to happen continually across all languages. Otherwise, users in certain languages will have a different (and out of date!) experience that will reflect poorly on your business.
6. Users' Expectations
Make sure you warn users with a notice before you send them to a section of your site that hasn't been translated yet, to an external link in a different language or if a file needs special software that may not be available in their language. An icon or short text letting them know about the target's language may be enough to avoid confusion or disappointment.
This goes hand in hand with #3: users should be able to toggle between different languages without having to return to the home page. A toggle switch on each multilingual page goes a long way in providing a smooth user experience.
8. Online Features and Functionality
You'll want to make sure that not only content has been translated but that interactive features are available in multiple languages as well. For instance, users should be able to share, email, print and subscribe to your site in their native language.
9. Integrated Operations and Marketing
Your multilingual website should be supported by offline infrastructure and customer contacts, which means that phone numbers, email support, and marketing materials should all be available in multiple languages as well and tie into your overall strategy.
10. Online Marketing
We mentioned SEO concerns briefly when we talked about your site's URL architecture in #4. But successful multilingual online marketing and SEO also require a multilingual online marketing and social media strategy. This includes multilingual blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as the tracking of results of your multilingual marketing efforts.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, a truly effective multilingual web presence requires more than hastily translating some of your content. Your site's overall strategy and architecture, supporting features, offline infrastructure, social media presence and marketing strategies all need to be translated as well as localized and adapted to the target language and culture, and then continuously updated and maintained.
If this sounds like a lot, you may want to consider the alternative: a shoddily put together web presence in another language -- poorly thought out and implemented, perhaps translated by machine and inappropriate for its target audience -- may do more harm than good. The same high professional standards should apply across all languages to ensure that a foreign-language user will have an equally satisfying experience when they visit your site.
And consider the benefits: whatever your product or service, you've worked hard on establishing your business and finding your market. With a well-conceived multilingual website, you can multiply your reach and increase your potential customer base many times over. Isn't that worth the extra effort it takes to hire a professional translation agency that specializes in this kind of work and gets the job done right?
We'll leave with with a webinar on best practices for multilingual websites by DigitalGov.