Why create multilingual websites?

Native English-speakers are no longer the online majority
Of the 1.8bn people online around the world, only 495.8m are native English-speakers – that’s less than one third, and the number of non-English speaking web surfers is increasing all the time. In fact, Chinese speaking web surfers are set to overtake English-speakers in the not too distant future, with 407.7m already online (internetworldstats.com).

Online consumers shop in their own language
A study by the Common Sense Advisory found that 85% of all online consumers would only buy from a website if they could read about the product in their own native language, even if they had some competency reading in other languages.

Properly localised content is essential for trust
If you visit a site that’s trying to entice you to buy something, but the page is littered with spelling errors, awkward grammar and cultural references that make no sense to you, are you likely to hand over your credit card details to them? Hardly – and the same is true for speakers of any other language. Relying on Google Translate to do the translating for you is not going to instil confidence in your customers – you need to build fully localised sites for every market. In fact, the base standard now for a website to be considered truly ‘global’ is having more than 20 localised sites.

Non-English SEO is less competitive
Purely because there are currently fewer pages overall in languages other than English, that means there’s also lower keyword density for other languages. For instance, let’s say you’re selling baseball caps online. If you’re targeting the American market, then your keyword ‘baseball cap’ is competing with potentially hundreds of thousands of other instances of that keyword on English-language pages; however if you decide to expand into the French market, you’ll find much less competition online for the French term for ‘baseball caps’, ‘casquettes’.

Tips

Design
You need a design that’s consistent in its branding message, but also flexible enough to adapt to different cultural preferences in terms of language direction, internet speed (avoid Flash wherever possible as it will slow your load times), color scheme and image density (eastern cultures tend to like a lot of color and imagery while western cultures go for minimalism). Look to the big international sites like Facebook, McDonald’s, and Coca Cola for ideas on how to build site frameworks that adapt easily across cultures, and always aim for horizontal navigation bars and a symmetrical design, to make it easier to switch the direction of your site’s text without having to redesign it all from the beginning.

Unicode UTF-8
You don’t want to have to rebuild your site from scratch for each different language, especially for those sites that require languages with non-Latin characters, such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Hindi. By using Unicode UTF-8 as your character encoding tool, you’ll have every character in over 90 scripts covered, which should be more than sufficient for your multilingual needs. Even better, it’s compatible with all the major browsers.

CSS
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) keep your content separate from your design, which makes it much simpler for you to change the language of your text and your images between sites with different languages, without having to rebuild each site from scratch. Also, CSS makes it far easier to switch from left-to-right languages like English to a right-to-left language such as Arabic – by adding the right-to-left dir=”rtl” attribute to the necessary areas you can easily flip the script.

Content
Don’t just write the one set of website text and then get it translated into your various languages, as you’ll need a different approach to appeal to different markets. Tailor your copywriting to each individual market – for instance, your site for the UK will likely benefit from a personal, even slightly irreverent tone, but your tone for Germany needs to be strictly business-like and factual, no hyperbole and no frivolity. By researching all your different markets’ tastes in design styles, color schemes, imagery and copywriting style before you build and launch your multilingual sites, you stand a much better chance of succeeding straight off the bat and becoming a serious player in the multilingual web.

About the author
Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translation agency and localisation specialists Lingo24. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 120 employees spanning four continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over thirty million words for businesses in every industry sector and their projected turnover for 2010 is £6.3m.