How to Create a Multilingual Website

Having a multilingual website means your website is available in more than one language. This is another aspect of Web Accessibility we love talking about here. There are two considerations: do you want your website back end to be in a language other than English? Or do you want to have your website served to your viewer in their preferred language?

Even here in Canada with our two official languages, I’d love to suggest that all Canadian websites should be multilingual and have a French and English version just by default – wouldn’t that be something? But as far as I can see, multilingual websites are typically only offered by government organizations.

And what are the stats showing? It’s easy to be complacent and presume that just because the majority of the internet is English speaking, this “global” language will suffice. But things get a little more complicated when you read stats from Google. 

In fact, the majority of online searches are conducted in languages other than English… And, when we say the majority of the Internet is English speaking, it makes up just 25%. Not much of a majority, is it?

Why does it matter if online searches being conducted in other languages? Simply put, if your online shop isn’t in the language your potential customer is using, you won’t appear in search results.

i18n or Internationalization is a big consideration for many companies, large and small. It can be dangerous to assume that your client base is comfortable with transacting online in just English. Whether you’re looking to improve your user experience (UX) by offering your site in multiple languages, or you want to improve your buyer’s experience online, there are things you need to consider – and things to avoid! – with your multilingual website.

5 Things to Avoid When Building a Multi Language Website

#1. Back away from Google Translate

Do NOT rely on Google Translate! It can be helpful to a certain extent, but the worst thing you could do to translate your website would be to copy and paste whole content into Google Translate, and back again. Google Translate can be helpful for ensuring that visitors will get a general idea of what you’re trying to say. But, cultures and keywords are different across the globe, and it’s not always just about translation (see #4 below!). Google Translate is NOT FOR YOU.

#2. Too Many Duplicate Pages in your Menu

The last thing you want to see is a menu bar with three home pages in three different languages. Three versions of every single page will overload your menu bar, and really diminish the user experience for your visitors. This is where having a language switcher comes in, where you have different versions of your site in different languages. This kind of multilingual website can make for a much smoother user experience!

#3. Using Fonts That Aren’t International

It’s easy to forget, but make sure you choose a font that displays special characters. French accents (like this: é) can totally change the meaning and pronunciation of a word, so they’re important to include and get right. You can read more about font choices here.

#4. Including Culturally Insensitive Photos, Words, Phrases

Watch out for outdated stock photos. Make sure images you’re using are inclusive and represent the people you’re writing for. If you’ve translated your site into 50 different languages, but only show images of one country, people, food, your message is not going to get across. The same applies to the language and words you use. And beware of unintentional ethnocentrism (cultural superiority complex) or even just cultural bias within your writing – are you really writing for a diverse international audience? Consider partnering with a local to translate your content. The Neil Patel article link above also recommends this, and really it’s the perfect solution.

#5. Messing Up Date and Time

1/10/2021.

Wait – is it Jan 10 2021 or Oct 1 2021? This is a small, simple thing that causes endless confusion on all sides of the ocean. Avoid it entirely by just writing out the full date instead: for example, January 10, 2021.

How to Easily Create a Multilingual WordPress Site

If you’re working on a WordPress site, luckily you’ve got some pretty straightforward options. If your site theme isn’t already translation-ready (which means that it already supports multiple languages) then stop right now and just change it. This will involve some revamping of your website, obviously, but this is probably your easiest strategy. I mean, honestly, designers need to be accounting for this already in their design; if they’re not, doesn’t it make you wonder what else they’re skipping? And this is WordPress, which offers the most user-friendly options for improving your website’s accessibility.

If you’re totally committed to your existing theme and for some reason you’re unwilling to change (although may I add, if you’ve been using the same design for over a year it’s probably time to consider updating it just to stay fresh) then there are plugins available for WordPress sites. WPML plugin is the most common, which can translate pages, posts, custom types, taxonomy, menus and even the theme’s texts. It is also great for multilingual website SEO, which is a critical feature. Here’s what WPML itself says it does:

WPML lets you fully optimize your site for SEO in multiple languages.

  • You have full control over how URLs look.
  • You can set SEO meta information for translations.
  • Translations are linked together.
  • Sitemaps include the correct pages and pass Google Webmasters validation.

With WPML, search engines understand your site’s structure and drive the right traffic to the right languages. Sounds pretty critical, right?

You can also read this WPBeginner article for some suggestions on creating a WordPress multilingual site.

Create a Multilingual Website With Other Site Builders

It’s true, there are other website builders out there, with varying features and levels of success.

Wix used to make you duplicate and translate all of your pages, but now their Wix Editor is integrated with Wix Multilingual (sites on Wix ADI are not integrated at time of this writing.) I have to point out that their own support forums encourage users to use Google Translate. (See my Tip #1 above for why that’s NOT a good idea.)

Weebly offers a few apps. From what I can tell, these are paid add-ons. Weebly’s Tutorials are outdated and reference using third-party services, many of which are no longer available, to translate your website content. I do not know if there is now a built-in feature – no offense to any Weebly lovers out there, but I doubt it.

With Squarespace, you’ll have to manually create each set of pages for each language you want to offer – or create a whole separate website for each language. And you’d probably need to upgrade your subscription in order to handle that number of pages.

Shopify does not offer its own native solution to make your store multilingual, but there are a couple different options – although only one of them really makes any sense. You can have multiple stores (this might sound like a good idea at first, but it’s a nightmare to manage and maintain) OR you can use a multilingual app. The most common right now is an app called Weglot, which will let you add hundreds of languages to your store in minutes. It claims to take care of detecting and automatically translating the whole of your Shopify site (including checkout and email notifications), and it also handles the multilingual SEO of your newly translated store. 

Conclusion

Creating a multilingual website isn’t particularly easy, but it should be part of your natural development process. Adding a multi-language option for your website doesn’t have to be highly technical, but you or your web designer should have a good handle on how it will impact the usability of your website, AND your SEO.

At the very least, you can easily research into your target audience and what languages they speak at home. In Canada, Wikipedia offers demographics based on Stats Canada surveys, so it’s not that hard to find – and the results just might surprise you.