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With orders received from other non-English speaking countries and a desire to expand, many companies are faced with a choice of how far to go with the localisation of their site. 

New research helps brands make that decision, from a full localisation of site and all campaigns, to a partial localisation of just the keywords and ads.

As a multilingual search agency a question we’re often asked: should we translate our website or landing page if we want to sell overseas?

I’ve always thought the answer should be yes (for non-English speaking countries that is), since I wouldn’t consider buying from a German or French website unless I wanted something that I couldn’t buy from an English language website.

Why go to the bother of running the site through Google Translate to get a part-translation if there are alternatives in English? Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to hear that ‘English is widely spoken in the Netherlands and Sweden, so we’d like to run campaigns there in English’.

There’s much talk of the UK economy needing to rebalance in favour of exports and of the opportunities a competitive exchange rate can offer, and with some companies unsure of their growth prospects from UK customers, the fact that companies are looking overseas makes a lot of sense.

So if you’re reading this considering whether you should translate your website, the European Commission recently published a Eurobarometer report revealing European online language preferences that might help you make that decision. (Flash Eurobarometer, Flash EB Series #313, May 2011).

The report found that “although 9 in 10 internet users in the EU said that, when given a choice of languages, they always visited a website in their own language, a slim majority (53%) would accept using an English version of a website if it was not available in their own language”.

So you might think that 53% isn’t bad, but note that 90% always visited a website in their own language when given a choice. If you’re competing in a market where websites are available in the local language, you’re instantly at a disadvantage.

Drilling further into the country data on this topic, just 22% of respondents from France strongly agreed with this statement compared to 66% of respondents in Sweden. This might be seen to reinforce that Swedish users are happy to use the web in English, but only when local language versions are not available.

More interestingly the report also presents data on the frequency of using a language, other than the respondents own, for searching or buying products or services. Here’s a summary of the data from a selection of countries:

Country All the time Frequently Occasionally Never
Germany 3.3% 10.4% 42.7% 43.0%
Spain 5.9% 17.7% 37.7% 38.0%
France 1.7% 12.5% 38.6% 47.1%
Italy 6.2% 19.6% 38.7% 33.5%
Netherlands 2.1% 13.0% 39.9% 44.8%
Sweden 3.5% 14.5% 42.7%

38.8%

Note that Swedish and Dutch respondents are just as likely as the others to never search in English, and the percentage respondents that do so all the time is not any higher.

So if you’re still thinking about expanding into new markets, it looks like the level of English as a second language isn’t that significant. Perhaps you should factor in the translation of your site or landing page to really make the most of the opportunity?

I understand that the prospect of creating a fully localised version of an e-commerce website presents a significant investment, and one that should be properly considered, so there are several options that companies sometimes pursue to test the market:

  • Create a multilingual PPC campaign and direct it at your English site to assess the level of interest. If the site gets visits (but perhaps a low conversion rate) you can use the visit data to help you decide whether the investment is worth it.
  • Create a multilingual PPC campaign and a localised landing page (or microsite) before committing to a full-scale localisation.

We have run such ‘partial translation’ campaigns and note that they seldom, if ever, deliver good ROI. This is because they are normally up against local-language competitors, meaning conversion rates will be low. They should only be used to test traffic.

I realise there are many factors businesses need to consider when expanding overseas but maybe translation should be high up the list?

Ian Harris

Published 21 July, 2011 by Ian Harris

Ian Harris is the CEO and founder of Search Laboratory, and a contributor to Econsultancy.

10 more posts from this author

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Daryl Irvine

Daryl Irvine, Digital Creative Director at The Walker Agency

I've seen many projects effectively bogged down by the need to have every aspect CMS driven and multilingual (including layout changes for non-western languages). In some instances by the time they were planned, agreed, revised, built and deployed the moment of opportunity had passed (or someone seized it more quickly and iterated to success).

I wholeheartedly agree with building in English (for the right audience/site), then using landing pages and multilingual PPC campaigns to drive traffic in the first instance. It lets you get to market quicker and make decisions about the next significant investment based on real data.

over 5 years ago

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John Heywood

Translation of even a simplified version of your website will allow many more potential customers to view what you have to sell. But be wary if having the site 'simply translated'as this might not take into account any cultural issues which could defeat the object if offense is caused!
professional translation AND localisation of your site will ensure that the message you want to get across is the message the potential buyer hears!

over 5 years ago

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Wholesale Suppliers

The article has a point there, but I'm still confused. Computers OS are always designed in English and if anyone has to type it would be English. Then why can't they read and understand a site available in English? Translating a site is no open option, you can have visitors from any part of the world. How many languages would your site support?

over 5 years ago

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Claire Scammell, The Language Factory

This is really interesting research. I'd have to agree that if you are making the investment, you have to make sure you get a quality translation. The same amount of care and consideration that went into the original needs to go into the translation so make sure you use professionals. A bad translation is worse than no translation at all. Don't be tempted to use Google Translate for even one word!

over 5 years ago

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Naughtez

Good article. I don't think it can stop at the website though.
While I appreciate driving traffic through local language ads to an English language website will hurt conversion rates, and that sending users through to a local language website would be better I think if a business is going to commit to a full site translation they need the back office in terms of customer services also.

Without customer service able to speak local language(s) the customer experience will be badly affected so this must be another consideration when deliberating whether or not to translate the site.

over 5 years ago

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Pete Stubbings, Splice Marketing

I agree with Naughtez, a multi-lingual campaign that produces the highest ROI needs to look further than the face of the website. There needs the ability to have some level of customer service in that language, even if it is only email service. The more you can offer in their language, the more likely they are to convert, this also includes things like return addresses in their country.

over 5 years ago

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David Urmann

I agree the customer service is an issue - but I like the articles realistic approach for small business in that translation is a good way to test the potential for traffic in the market. If the traffic exists one can scale up the required customer support in the local language but to go the other way around would be difficult. We are considering the same issues with our website Visitusa.com and if we should translate to Spanish.

over 5 years ago

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Kath Marr - Livingword

It is certainly true that you can become bogged down with the language specific changes (Arabic being a prime example). However the key in our experience is planning additional languages in from the start. If you include localisation in your initial discussions and technical plans for your website from the start, then you will find it easier to add them to the site at a later date.

It is also nice to have a level of customer service in the languages you choose to localise the website in, but not always necessary. Many Europeans do use and enjoy using the English language too, so even having just a webpage translated is worthwhile, whether or not you can back that up with back office support. As Claire says, a bad translation is better than no translation, so if your budget is tight, go for quality not quantity.

over 5 years ago

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Kath Marr - Livingword

correction: a bad translation is of course WORSE than no translation at all!

over 5 years ago

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Jeremy Clutton - AA Translations

Great area for discussion and I would echo everyone’s comments here. Don't get your site translated for the hell of it, make sure you know where the opportunity is, get the best possible partners to help in the process, make sure if you are going to translate that the source content is adapted first to be appropriate for each distinct country and finally you have to be able to support and deliver for those new customers in that country, if your website is in German for example but you can't field e-mails or calls in German to deliver the appropriate level of customer support, then think really hard about whether this is the appropriate strategy for your business. P.S. Regarding PPC and SEO think unique approach per market, translating meta data directly can be worse than useless

over 5 years ago

Guy Redmond

Guy Redmond, Digital Marketing Engineer at Nestle

@Jeremy Clutton, totally agree.

If you do chose to add another language to your website, consider localising the content, not merely translating it.

There is more to just translating -sorry- localising your content, so consider the AI of your site too.
How will people chose, or find this new language?
Do you want to use a ccTLD, sub-domains, or even sub-directories?

over 5 years ago

Guy Redmond

Guy Redmond, Digital Marketing Engineer at Nestle

Sorry, typo!

AI = IA, information architecture

over 5 years ago

Matt Train

Matt Train, Operations Director at TranslateMedia

It's a difficult question for a lot of ecommerce sites; you know you are getting extensive traffic from other countries, you want to make the most of that by providing local language service*, but the expense of localising your whole online service might be prohibitive, so you consider a partial site translation or test run.

*(There is a detailed report called 'Can't Read Won't Buy' published by Language Industry Research Analysts, Common Sense Advisory Group, available on their site.)

However, what we are seeing in reality are clients who do not want to deliver a partial version of their service, because they fear it will detract from their brand. So budget then has to compete directly with brand guardianship.

Another strategy is sometimes employed - free, poor quality machine translations are used on TripAdvisor for instance, to translate reviews. Translating UGC using free services can bring costs down. But it's not really a good strategy for translating "brand-owned text"; product descriptions for instance (which is often the bulk of text).

What we always advise clients is to remember what is was like putting the website together initially in English. How much time, redrafting, reformatting design elements, making sure links work...etc. If you want 5 languages, a lot of that work and pain will have to be gone through again - 5 times. Don't take it lightly. But don't underestimate the dividends.

over 5 years ago

Richard Tanguay

Richard Tanguay, President at Vision Synergie Inc.

Here an Quebec Canada we have to make the web site in french and English because both languages are almost equal. Matt, if you use a CMS whit language component you don't have to bother with links because a good component use the same article ID but only add the language extension like for example &lang=en for english so all the links on any page send to the same page to the other language.

I fully agree that the translation have to be perfect and only expect people to use google translation by them selves never use it to automatically translate your site or email campaign. I can tell you that English to french or french to English is far from perfect. So like Clair said a bad translation is WORSE than no translation at all!

over 5 years ago

Ian Harris

Ian Harris, CEO at Search LaboratorySmall Business Multi-user

There are some really good points made here. Regarding localising a CMS, this article below talks about some of the issues you face when internationalising a CMS: http://www.searchlaboratory.com/blog/2009/09/how-to-prepare-a-cms-for-website-translation/ (sorry, can't put a link in)

There is an article at this URL that discusses dome of the dos and don'ts that are covered above that people may find useful http://www.searchlaboratory.com/blog/2010/12/expanding-abroad-%E2%80%93-dos-and-donts/

These two articles cover some of the points people are discussing based on what we have seen in the past from localising websites and search campaigns.

over 5 years ago

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