Practical Tips for Multilingual Website Design

English might be the dominant online language for the time being, but that’s changing fast – right now there are over 1.3 billion people online for whom English is not their first language (Internetworldstats.com). Taking that into account, along with research that shows 85% of online consumers will only buy from a website in their own language (Common Sense Advisory, 2006), and you can see exactly why it’s a good idea to go multilingual with your online presence. Here are a few practical tips on how to do that successfully.

Top Level Domains (TLDs)

To properly infiltrate foreign markets you’ll need to create an individual TLD for each language – this will not only boost your site’s credibility in each market, but will also help you to rank higher on in-country search engines. Simply having multilingual sub-domains off your main site won’t help as search engines won’t view the sub-domains as separate from your main site.

Hosting

If possible, try and host all of your TLDs on servers in their individual countries, as this will also help with boosting your in-country search engine rankings, thanks to geo-targeting.

Design

There are several elements to consider when it comes to your overall page and navigation design for your set of localized sites. Essentially, you need a framework that is consistent in terms of its branding and recognizable across each localized site, but is also flexible enough to change with the language and design preferences of each market. Keeping your navigation bars horizontal will make it easier to switch between left-to-right and right-to-left languages, and you should keep in mind that line heights and widths may need to change between languages with different characters.
Furthermore, it always helps to do some research into the websites of your competitors in each market, as preferences in terms of design and content can vary greatly between cultures – for instance, for the German market you might keep your front page minimal and to the point, while for the Chinese market you would use more imagery, more animation, and more content in general.

CSS

Keep your content separate from your design by using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and your life will be made a whole lot easier when it comes to switching your content (images and copy) from site to site.

Unicode

Character encoder Unicode UTF-8 cannot be more highly recommended for multilingual website design – with a unique code for over 100,000 characters in over 90 scripts, and compatible with all common browsers and operating systems, it doesn’t matter whether you’re translating your content into simplified Chinese, Arabic, Russian or Swahili, you’ll be able to find the correct characters. Using Unicode with a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) web design tool like Microsoft FrontPage is the most hassle-free way to design.

Colour

The cultural connotations of colors can vary widely between different cultures – for instance black is generally the color of mourning in the west, while it’s white in the east, and green may indicate the environment and nature to European countries, but in the Middle East it has religious connotations, as the holy color of Islam. Think carefully about your color scheme for each site before going ahead.

Font

Times New Roman, Arial or Verdana are the safest bets, no matter what market you’re aiming for.

Imagery

Cultural sensitivity is key when it comes to your imagery. Not only do you need to make sure that the subjects of your imagery are appropriate to your target market (for instance, featuring Chinese people in images on your Chinese site), you also need to make sure that you’re not using imagery that’s likely to offend. Consider the case of Pepsi, who ended up being sued by the Indian city of Hyderabad for an advertising campaign in which the Indian cricket team celebrate a win while being served Pepsi by a young boy – innocent enough to western eyes perhaps, but to the Indian audience the advert promoted child labor.

Flash

Try to avoid using Flash and Java wherever possible as this will slow down the loading time for your pages and also reduce the amount of search engine optimized content on each page, as search engine bots can’t scan text embedded in Flash files.

Translate

Most important of all, make sure that whoever you get to translate the copy for your web pages and your SEO keywords is a professional translator working into their own language. Languages are fluid, tricky beasts, and the potential for misunderstanding and miss communication is great, even just between regional dialects in the one language. You don’t want to scare away potential visitors or customers by having inappropriate or incorrect language on your site, so don’t just rely on Google Translate. This is especially true for your SEO keywords, as the direct English translation may not be the most popular search term – researching regional keywords on a service like Google’s Keyword Tool is the best way to ensure your content is localized and search engine optimized.

Christian Arno is the Managing Director of Lingo24, a global translation services provider that also specializes in website localization. Follow Christian on Twitter: @Lingo24chr.