Building Better Multilingual Websites

author image Written by: Lia           Categories - Digital Marketing, Web Design

How Smart Web Design and Architecture Planning Supports Multilingual SEO Success for Your Business

The biggest impact Internet connectivity has had on civilization is how it connects people from around the globe. Naturally, this presents one major challenge for websites on a global scale: not everyone speaks the same language. That’s where multilingual sites come into the picture. These websites allow users to access valuable information and services in a language they’re fluent in, just like some brick-and-mortar business cater to the population of their community by offering service in two or more languages. As an example, Canada’s a country that proudly speaks both English and French. As my fellow Canucks are no doubt aware, all Government of Canada websites provide services in French and English alike. Now, before you go cloning pages and translating your content into another language, it’s important to understand the role that your site’s architecture plays in SEO, UX, and digital marketing. Your site’s architecture is the foundation on which it is built. As with problems in your home’s foundation, issues facing your site architecture will cause problems throughout the entire structure. For lasting success and your own peace of mind, it’s important to get it right the first time.

Architecture Basics

A laptop with coding visible on the screen sits on the arm of a sofa.
Start with the basics and nail the architecture first.
Let’s go back to the analogy of building a secure foundation for a home. Before you even begin to build a home, let alone pour the foundation, you spend a lot of time thinking about what you need from a house. You develop a list of features and a plan, maybe with a designer, to create a space you’ll feel comfortable in and that will support your needs. Website architecture is no different. Intuitive navigation and menu structures are not the result of common sense but careful planning and consideration. Taking a few cues from the field of information architecture, it’s important to understand your site exists at the confluence of several factors. As with any marketing endeavour, start with the research. Who is your audience? What are they looking for? How do your business offerings intersect with user needs and search intent? Over at Conversion XL, Peep Laja argues that there are four fundamental questions visitors have when they arrive at a site:

  • Am I in the right place?
  • Does your site have what I’m looking for?
  • Does your site have anything better, if this isn’t what I want?
  • What do I do next?

As such, your site needs to leave visitors feeling comfortable they’re in the right place, help them find what they’re looking for with minimal effort, and ensure they know what other options are available. They also need to know what actions they can take next once they’ve made a decision. So, with this in mind, your site’s proposed architecture should include and incorporate everything from menu structures and effective CTAs to search functionality and easy-to-use UX-influenced design. In short, good site structure means great user experience. Easy, right?

How Multiple Languages Impact Architecture and SEO

Whether you have an existing website or you’re starting from scratch, the first step is making sure you’ve got all your content ready for translation. As tempting as it might be to go with a software-based solution, we highly recommend using a human translator. People understand the nuances of language much better than machines, and that nuance can make or break SEO success via content marketing. The good news is this will pay off. The bad news is this is one of many challenges.

A graphic of various greetings in a wide variety of languages, including English, French, Japanese, and more.
Don’t ignore the benefits of translated content tailored to your audiences.

Transliteration vs. Translation

Offering content in several languages adds tremendous complexity to the web design process. Not only does your content need to be translated effectively to convey your messaging to your target audience, but it also needs to be presented properly. This doesn’t just mean good design and layouts: it means considering how content in another language will look and behave, in everything from wordiness to how characters interact in a font.   For example, a simple “Add to Cart” button in English is only 11 characters long, including the spaces. Translate that into French, “Ajouter au panier,” and it jumps up to 17. In German, that’s “zum warenkorb hinzufügen,” a whopping 24 characters. At this point, it’s worth it to find less-wordy alternatives with a translator or start adding code that will change the font size, style, and kerning based on any chosen language. Unicode-based encoding can support multiple languages, ensuring your content and fonts contain all the characters needed to display your content.

URL Structure

This is the big one, with potentially huge ramifications for SEO. Country code top-level domains (ccTLD) are a pretty common option. These are domains linked to specific countries, such as .ca for Canadian sites. They send strong signals to search engines that your site is aimed at users within that country. The big downside with ccTLDs is that they carry extra costs and aren’t as readily available. Alternatively, you can go with a subdomain paired with a generic top-level domain (gTLD), such as ca.yourbusiness.org, where the “ca.” subdomain denotes the country while the gTLD handles the rest. Of course, the problem here is that users might not recognize the content language based on the URL alone. Getting a bit more out there, you can try a subdirectory. These are probably one of the most common and effective ways of denoting multiple languages. This is the classic “www.yourbusiness.com/fr/” address, which lets you host all content on a single server. Subdirectories are easy to set up and implement and using Google Search Console also allows you to identify different languages your visitors use quickly. At SEO TWIST, most of our multilingual sites use subdirectories. For example, SKINS Derma Care’s brand new French site can be found at www.skinsdermacare.ca/fr/.

Tagging and Identifying Multilingual Sites

The biggest issue facing your site’s SEO when you create a multilingual site is getting it to rank. Google’s crawlers are polyglots, meaning they’re able to read content no matter the language. So when they land on your English page for, say, high-end basketball shoes and see a page with really similar content in French on the same domain, they get a little confused. Thankfully, there are solutions here. HTML link elements can be added to pages that you’re trying to rank to let them know that the multilingual translations are simply alternate versions of the same page. Using rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” can help you distinguish versions of a page. Of course, it goes without saying that all these solutions and fixes work perfectly in an ideal world. With the help of a reliable team of web developers, you can get these elements working perfectly in tandem to ensure optimal UX, no matter what language your users need.

Diving into Multilingual SEO

Optimizing multilingual sites for search engines is about as challenging and time-consuming a process as SEO is in a single language. Let’s take a hypothetical English site considering branching into French content as an example. Keyword research and traffic analysis have shown you get significant French search volume from both Quebec and France alike. This is fantastic data to have but presents some key challenges.

A hand points at a spot on a map with pins on it showing where visitors are from.
Track and map where you’re getting traffic from to determine your approach.
Obviously, you want the people searching in French to arrive at your French site. But French content for Quebec is naturally going to be very different than French content for France. Even within Canada itself, New Brunswick’s francophone population might need a specifically geotargeted page, too. This is all to say that multilingual SEO is a complex topic that amplifies the usual challenges you face. After resolving technical challenges, lasting success relies on ongoing, effective content strategies for your various markets. This means developing buyer personas, delving into keyword research, exploring local traffic and search trends, and putting it all together in a compelling content package. Let’s be honest: SEO is already a complex endeavour. When we add the requirements for a multilingual platform, we are adding to the complexities. But when executed correctly, a multilingual SEO strategy will reap massive benefits for your site, brand, and business. Not sure where to start? Contact SEO TWIST today to book a site audit—we’ll help you determine a strategy for expanding your site’s offerings to help support your business goals. BOOK AN AUDIT TODAY!


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