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.