Having a global channel literally at our fingertips obviously does not mean that our message is being understood globally. Whilst some organisations have made much progress in resolving the issues of acting globally online, for others it remains a complex problem.

So what should a company be thinking about when considering the globalisation of its website? 

Website globalisation encompasses many challenges, from how to integrate it into your operations from a content generation and management perspective, through to the intricacies of grey market control, currency, taxation and fulfilment if you are involved in e-commerce.

In this post I focus on one aspect of a global website and that is language. This is a common challenge to both transactional and passive content websites.

There is a distinction between providing a multilingual website (one site available to a global audience with each page being available, fully translated, in multiple languages) and providing local country sites that present content that is of specific interest to that locale and would be delivered in the local language with a possible English translation as a backup.

Applying this distinction to an organisation is part of being clear about the online audience, the content provided to them and the anticipated usage of that content. 

Meeting the users needs

Online communications should address the language preferences of users, a sometimes overlooked aspect of usability. Language choices should be made when planning user journeys.  

However, for a large website producing fully translated pages in multiple languages can costly. While it is tempting to use automatic software translation to ease this problem, we believe this can lead to embarrassing and potentially damaging outcomes.

Therefore, if software assisted translation is used, we would recommended that the translation is reviewed by a human translator before posting. This ensures that the translation correctly communicates the sentiment of the message but, of course, largely negates the value of software translation in the first place.


Whilst not strictly a language issue, website translation should include the visual aspects of  communication too. The online experience should be culturally relevant to achieve an emotional connection with the audience, another aspect of making a website usable for a diverse audience.

Main considerations are around the selection of images and use of colour palettes but consideration should also be given to how different audiences scan a page. 

Accessing languages

The top right hand corner of a web page has become the standard location for a login button as well as a search box. At the risk of crowding this area further, it has also become the de-facto standard location for language selection buttons.

A common mistake is to confuse, or merge, language choice options with navigation to a local country site. It is important to manage the users experience through clear signposting to ensure they understand where an option takes them and the associated language of a target page. 

Toggling page content

Users should be able to toggle between equivalent content and features on multilingual websites, such that the user can select the current page in different languages rather than being taken back to a homepage Similarly the alternative language version of a site should be complete and not a combination of two languages.

Features and functionality including FLASH elements, button labels and of course menu navigation, should all be presented in the selected language.   

Maintenance and management 

If an organisation is to provide a multilingual web experience then it is important to ensure that the various language versions provide a parallel user experience to the English site.

This requires a plan to support regular updates and maintenance ensuring each version remains current. It may be appropriate to implement a policy that ensures any new content is released in all supported languages simultaneously, though this will require more resources. 

Online marketing

A multilingual website needs to be supported by equivalent language online marketing. If multilingual content on the website is justified then it seems logical that the same users will have the same language preferences whilst out in social media land or consuming other online marketing.  

Developing and executing a targeted multilingual online marketing program, including social media, will require significant resources and is something that many organisations struggle with today. 

URL planning

Google use the terminology to ‘Geo Targeting’ to describe a strategy of providing country specific websites with local interest content. ‘Language Targeting’ in Google parlance describes the provision of multiple language versions of a website typically hosted on one domain.  

In general,  geo-targeting is best implemented through individual sites using their own top-level domains (.co.uk, .de, .es.es and so on). This provides some benefit in terms of search optimisation but, more importantly, provides very effective signposting for the user and helps generate confidence.

Where multilingual targeting (language targeting) is being deployed, each variation of the content can either reside in its own sub-domain or, more simplistically, in its own subdirectory.

If the latter approach is adopted then it is recommended to use Google’s WebMaster tools to define the geographic target of each sub-directory, thus mitigating issues around duplicate content. 

Providing a true multilingual user experience adds cost and complexity to your organisations content creation process. However,for an organisation that truly works in a pan-European or global context it should be considered essential.

It's mere implementation clearly signals and communicates your organisation's multi-national perspective.  

Ed Stivala

Published 19 April, 2010 by Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala is the founder of consulting firm n3w media and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or find n3w on Facebook

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Comments (9)

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Gemma Birch

Good post, highlighting some of the key factors and challenges of running multilingual search campaigns.

I would make a couple of additional points:

While translation may play a role in developing a website in multiple languages, direct translations of English content often fail as websites because they don’t include the keywords that their target audience are searching with. So keyword research in the native language must be always be carried out by a native speaker as the first step in website localisation.

Native speakers need to be involved at every step of the way to ensure that the content is appropriate and relevant for the target audience, as well as local search engines. Using the same content from your English site will not always be possible, depending on the country and audience you are trying to reach.

over 8 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

Totally agree with that Gemma, thank you for adding your thoughts. Keywords will definitely vary by country and culture and therefore definitely should be considered on a local level. 

over 8 years ago



Nice article. I'm currently making a bilingual site (English / German) and find that while it's not quite as costly or time-consuming as I initially thought, it's still a pain and needs to be planned properly.

And yes, it's a MUST that all translations are done by qualified (ie, literate) native speakers.

about 8 years ago


Shirdi Sai

All the factors really matter when you are going to develop a site which is multi language supported. We must meet the User expectations because without meeting the expectations no user like to visit our site.

about 8 years ago


Ben Craig

This post is a good start and certainly covers some of the bases, but truly multilingual sites often require more than just the ability to toggle between langauges, and as such, can be a can of worms.

Some key concerns relate to functionality like search/browse where ordering is requried.  In English, we're used to sorting alphabetically by the first letter of a name, for example.  However in Simplified Chinese, this concept does not exist.  Sorting is done pheonetically based on a defined character order.  So in this context, a "browse by first letter of surname" function makes no sense in that language.  This can also have implications for search results ordering or filtering.

Another area is the word length.  A navigation label or a block of text might take up different amounts of space when translated.  For blocks of text, this is less of an issue, but for navigation, when your neat one-word English label turns into five words in Italian, you' need to have a design that can accommodate this.

What about localisation?  Things like date formats, currencies, and even numbering conventions.  For example, in French, times are shown in 24 hour format, with "h" as the seperator.  E.g. 18h00 is 6pm.  Likewise, many European languages use commas and decimal points in the opposite way to English.  1.5 in French is 1,5, and 15,000 is 15.000.  And the Thai characterset also includes it's own numbering system.

What about non-latin charactersets?  Arabic is right-left, so does the site design support this when "toggling" between languages?  And character limits?  If your form field is set to accept 200 characters, how is this rule enforced in Simplified Chinese, where one "character" can be a word in itself.

These are just a few areas which can trip up the unwary when agreeing to deploy a truly multilingual site.  

about 8 years ago



I think it’s worth adding URL structure to the list.

Using special characters ë, ã and even Cyrillic and simplified Chinese in the URL can have its own complications too.

about 8 years ago


Ana Yoerg

Ben, good point about non-Latin character sets. With Arabic - and other right-to-left languages like Hebrew - there are a number of other considerations to think about when translating software and websites. For example, eyetracking (where users first look to the upper right-hand corner of a site for the most pertinent information) is mirrored. There are some back-end coding issues, as well, when you start mirroring. See the full post for more details: http://www.acclaro.com/translation-localization-blog/bidirectional-language-software-translation-43 We also discuss non-Latinized country-code domains (ICANN's latest news) in a previous post, if you're interested.

about 8 years ago


Jackson Rubem

I have a blog on wordpress and a domain: www.exemplo.com. I want my blog in english and portuguese, using the same domain.My question: can I install another wordpress using the same domain within a subidirectory? Something like: www.exemplo.com/portuguese/
Please, help-me.
Thank you.

almost 8 years ago


kenneth clive brown

Christchurch & East Dorset D.C.-- have a website for Policy Planning ALL meetings are recorded in 53 different language"s, what a waste of time & money. The comments from this site make me ask the question how much will it cost per meeting .

over 7 years ago

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