Carbon8 Guide to Multilingual Website Development


Multilingual sites are organizationally and technically complicated, but with some best practices in mind, they are an effective way of reaching an international audience.

In today's global economy, it is not uncommon for a company to have divisions, subsidies, and clientèle spread across the globe. This presents a unique challenge for marketers in terms of messaging and branding, but it also extends to digital properties.
Eventually, most international companies will consider having a single, unifying multilingual site. While the convenience of integrating all your digital marketing effort under one umberella is compelling, there are many business and technical considerations that should be made beforehand.


How Do Multilingual Sites Work?

Before we jump in we need to define the variety of “multilingual” sites that may exist. Each one accomplishes the goal of having content in different languages, but are technically very different.

  1. The Unified Behemoth
    This is probably the most common expectation of what a multilingual site is. There are multiple languages that are available, but each language version is virtually identical aside from content. Theoretically, you can scale this indefinitely, and the only thing stopping you is the time is takes to translate the content.
  2. The “Might-As-Well” Attempt
    This method is primarily for companies who are required to have translations for some reason or another, but nobody really cares if it works well or if anyone actually reads it. Essentially, this is adding a Google Translate widget on your site that will attempt to translate your entire site in realtime using its machine learning. If you’ve ever used Google Translate, you’d know it’s not particularly accurate for long stretches of content, but hey – it’s free!
  3. The Divide and Conquer
    Most companies, especially those who undergo a lot of mergers and acquisitions overseas, will end up with a splattering of different web assets that are somewhat, but also not really related to one another. In this case, the company has multiple websites, one for each country/language, which is independently hosted and managed.

There are some variations of each of these 3 possibilities, but in general, most clients are aiming to go from a #2 or #3 to a #1. A noble endeavor, indeed. Let’s talk about that, shall we?


How to Succeed at Multilingual Website Development

Firstly, think carefully of the business reasons behind having a multilingual site. Convenience is almost always the first answer, but it’s rarely achievable because of factors outside of the website or CMS' capabilities. Here are five things to keep in mind to ensure that your multilingual site is successful:

  1. Multilingual means different languages, not different websites for different languages.
    Expectations are very important to set when you go about creating a multilingual site. In particular, if you have multiple people who are responsible for managing the website in their respective language, then those people need to know that each language is NOT a separate website that they can edit however they want. Unified multilingual websites rarely change in design or structure between languages – content can be translated, and that’s about it. Once you start giving in to design changes for each language, then all the effectiveness of having a multilingual site goes away immediately. This often is a problem for people switching from a “Divide and Conquer” structure especially where different business units are used to doing whatever they want to their site.
  2. Have workflow and versioning turned on.
    Having a workflow that tracks changes and allows for reverting back to old versions is extremely important for your sanity. With different languages and different people touching your website, it’s highly likely that somebody will break somebody else’s work. In this case, it’s very important to maintain a strict set of roles and responsibilities that allows someone to quickly undo anything that they may have accidently published.
  3. Put in the work to translate.
    Companies will often just keep a language version of their site for a market that they really aren’t active in, leaving a lot of the content in some other default language. Please don’t do this. If you don’t really care about the market, then don’t give them a site that says that it’s in their language when it clearly is not. If you either can’t or won’t translate all the page for a new language, then keep those sections unpublished from that language. It’s better for a user not to see untranslated content at all then to have to wade around trying to find something that they can actually read.
  4. Mind the Search Engines.
    Multilingual sites are tricky for Google to crawl. In the vastness of their algorithm, they can generally figure out what language a site is in and make a few safe assumption about the site in general. However, there are a few things that you can do help Google:
    • Differentiate your URLs with a path or subdomain – Google can very easily understand that www.domain.com/de and www.domain.com/en are two different language versions because they use default language codes, but probably won’t get something like www.domain.com?lang=1 as easily. Generally, having a path or doing multiple subdomains like en.domain.com and de.domain.com are considered better practices.
    • Add Alternative Links – each of your pages should have multiple lines like this in it: <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="http://www.domain.com/en " />.  This is the officially supported way for Google to get an idea of what all the translated version of a page are supposed to be. This allows Google to properly crawl the site, avoid duplicate content issues, and ensure that the right language version is showing up in search results.
    • Canonicalize Untranslated Content – If for any reason, you simply can’t translate all content on your site (typical for blogs), then it’s important to add a special tag in your code that canonicalizes that content. What this will tell Google is that even though you may be the Spanish version of a blog post, that blog post is still in English, so don’t bother crawling it as a separate page. This is extremely important in avoiding duplicate content (even though Google is generally smart enough to know this is happening).
  5. Think about how people switch
    There are two ways you can use to get people to the right language – either have a language selector of some sort, or try to guess their country and language based off of their IP. Language selectors should always be included no matter what, but whether you want just a little dropdown in your navigation or actually force users to pick a language when they first come to the site is up to you. In general, the language picker can be a little intrusive, so people will often use IP-detection to take a “first-guess” at a user’s language, and then leave a language dropdown prominently on the site so they can switch. It’s also important to make sure that the site remembers the users selection, so they don’t have to undergo the selection every time. 

So that’s about it! Multilingual sites can very complicated based on your content requirements, but in general, a good amount of forward-thinking and planning can go a long way in preventing future headaches. If you have a need to build a multilingual site, contact us at Carbon8, and we’ll get you squared away.

Jon Syu
written by JON SYU

Jonathan is the senior technology manager at Carbon8, with years of experience working with various nonprofits and businesses in technical, development, and marketing positions. He began his programming career at 12, when he realized that he could create games on his graphic calculator instead of learning math. At Carbon8, he is responsible for all things technical, providing direction to Carbon8's development offerings and overall strategy.

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