Going Multilingual: How To Translate A Website

Martin Woods
by Martin Woods 12 May, 2016

If you have an English language website and want to make it multilingual, where do you start?

There are many technical challenges that need to be overcome and for a large site to be successfully translated it will require the skills of a translator, a Web developer and an international SEO consultant, working together to create a harmonious end product. Here's how each of those roles play into the overall translation of a website:

Keyword Research

From an SEO perspective it's best to complete keyword research before doing the translation and identify important keywords to target. There are bound to be keywords that aren't important in one language, but are in another.

Let's look at some keywords in English and French for a holiday website, to give you an example:

The French don't really have a "last-minute holidays" mentality in the same way as the Brits do and this is reflected in a much smaller search volume. If you were translating "Last-minute holidays" into French, you'd therefore be better grouping it in the "Vacances pas cher" section and optimizing it for this search term instead.

If you were translating your website the other way and chose to translate "Vacances pas cher" as "Cheap holidays" then you would be targeting literally 5,000 times more searches than "Cheap vacations". Changing your keyword focus can literally make the difference from getting no enquiries or sales to getting plenty.

The Translation

We'll use translating an English website into French throughout this article, however the advice is equally valid for any other language, or to create a multilingual site in three or more languages.

First, the translation has to be completed manually. Google have strict anti-spam rules and class auto-generated content as spam. In their list of auto-generated content they include "Text translated by an automated tool without human review or curation before publishing." Simply using an automatically translated version of your website is likely to incur an SEO penalty, as well as creating content that makes little sense to your readers.

Depending on the nature of your site and whether you will be completing the translation in-house or outsourcing it determines the best approach to take; the two main options are:

- Use an open-source or custom CMS to assist with your translation. CMS systems like WordPress and Drupal have supplementary modules that are easy to install that will translate many of those niggly bits of a website for you - default welcome emails, login messages, ecommerce messages, etc. These CMS systems also have interfaces that show you what's already been translated and allow you to translate the website directly online.

- Export products or other bulk information into .csv files. Most websites store information in databases and if the Web developer exports these into a .csv file, then the translator can translate them in Excel and send them back in the same format where they can be easily imported. This is much faster for both parties than having the translator manually copy content from the site and send it to the Web developer in a Word document. There will be elements of a site that aren't included in the .csv files, but it will cover the bulk of it.

Domains, Sub-Domains or Sub-Folders

Another common question is whether to use separate Web domains, sub-domains or sub-folders. This is an ongoing debate and there's no single clear answer. Different companies have approached it in different ways and Google try and give equal weighting whichever method you use. Some examples of different approaches for famous sites are shown below with their French and German versions:


- amazon.fr, amazon.de

- google.com, google.fr


- fr.wikipedia.org, de.wikipedia.org

- fr-fr.facebook.com, de-de.facebook.com


- reddit.com/r/france, reddit.com/r/de

Given that all options can work, don't spend weeks of development time reconfiguring a site if one of the three options is easier to implement. That said, if it's possible to use separate domains, this is my personal favorite because:

- Having a .fr means your site will appear higher in France, alternatively you can use Google's international targeting tool (previously called geotargeting) to tell Google which country your site is aimed towards. This could your SEO.

- If visitors see a domain ending with .fr they immediately know that it's a French website and this could help improve your click through rate.

- Many website analysis tools struggle to differentiate between sub-folders and using sub-folders therefore makes it harder to access website data, this is therefore my least favorite option.

- It's easier to remember .fr than .com/fr and this helps with your branding.

Other SEO Factors

Completing keyword research, creating a fluent translation and using a suitable CMS all go a long way towards creating a user-friendly multilingual website with good SEO, however to be sure of success, you should also consider cultural factors and ask a few local people to visit your site and give you feedback.

Certain images and colors symbolize different things in different languages and to ensure you create a professional impression it's best to ask local residents for an honest opinion. About The Author

Martin Woods is an international SEO consultant for Indigoextra Ltd., with 17 years' experience. When he's not completing client projects and researching Google's latest algorithms, he spends his time homeschooling his two teenage boys and playing Ultimate Frisbee. Martin's also written over 500 cryptic crosswords for The Big Issue.