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Multi-language websites

When targeting an international audience it can be tempting to default to English. Especially in the UK or other English speaking countries. But doing so can be short-sighted.

Making the effort to serve a website in different languages can bring great returns for SEO (search engine optimisation). For example, when a user’s Google settings are set to Spanish, Spanish content ranks much higher than English (other search engines are available).

Even in different territories using (supposedly) the same language, localisation can be useful. You’re not going to sell many “chips” in America, Australia or New Zealand if you insist on calling them “crisps”.

So what are the big things to consider?

Three things to think about when setting up a multi-language website

There are three big considerations to make when thinking about setting up a multi-language website:

  1. Content management;
  2. Translation and development costs; and
  3. The best technical structure for international SEO.

The right content management system for multiple languages

As far as we’re concerned, the decision around content management is an easy win. Our CMS of choice, Craft, makes it straightforward to set up a multi-language website. It gives us the freedom to make it as simple or complex as necessary.

As a rule, a translated version of a site will use the same templates for each language. This means that we can build a single website, and tell Craft CMS that there are several versions of the content for each template. But if you want totally different templates for different regions, or to hide certain sections for certain regions, that’s possible too (but it will likely increase development costs). The website will still use only one CMS licence.

Costs: machine translation vs human translation; development fees; and maintenance

The cost of translation can vary wildly. Machine translations are quick, free and easy. But we're not sure the savings pay off. Google (and other search engines) prioritise high-quality original content. They will identify low-quality machine-translation and rank that content lower.

Sign with characters translated into mangled English "Flowers are lovely. Care her and not pick up"

A fine example of mangled translation.

Good, human translation doesn’t come cheap, but it could make all the difference.

Generally speaking the biggest gains in SEO (and what are we doing this for, if not to show up on the first page of results) are made when a site is translated in full. But if the budget just doesn’t allow for that, there are always compromises. You could serve a ‘toned-down’ version of the original website, with less content. However, less content pretty much equals less result when it comes to SEO. It’s also worth considering that, while creating new templates to handle reduced content will save translation cost, it could also increase development cost.

Another option is a phased approach: translate the site one language at a time, and spread the cost over a longer period, too.

Lastly, once a site has translated versions, these versions all need maintaining. All new content needs adding in however many language versions there are, so your rolling costs should be factored in, too.

Technical considerations for international SEO

The last and arguably most important decisions to make are how to maximise SEO through the technical setup. More specifically, which URL structure to use, because URL structure can have a big impact on SEO.

First of all, there are different types of top-level domains (TLDs) — the .com or .co.uk part of the URL.

One option is to use a generic TLD that looks like this:

Generic TLDs don’t give any information about what region or language a website is targeting.

Another option is to use multiple country-coded top level domains (ccTLDs) that do indicate specific regions. ccTLDs use a two letter country code (except in the UK, because we’re special), and look like this:

Google likes to serve the most relevant search results and uses location as a big indicator of relevance. Since ccTLD are a great indicator for location, they tend to rank higher locally, compared to generic TLDs.

However, if you want to translate a website for twenty languages, registering twenty different ccTLS can get complicated.

While using a generic TLD might not yield the same results, it is much simpler, and there are some workarounds. The hreflang tag (a meta tag that can tell Google that content is available in another language) is perhaps the most useful. There is also the option to use the Google Search Console to target specific regions.

Using a single domain also improves domain authority (sometimes called website authority). Domain authority is a complex metric that describes how relevant a website is for a specific search term. It takes into account many factors, including the prestige of the website and its authors, quality of information, ‘centrality’, and the competitive situation. Building domain authority on multiple ccTLDs is much harder than building it on a single TLD.

To organise different languages on a single, generic TLD like .com, you could use subdirectories or subdomains.

Subdirectories com after the TLD, like this:

Subdomains come before the domain name, instead of the www part or the URL:

Subdirectories are used frequently around the web to organise content in multiple languages. We have used this approach when building websites for the National Lottery’s Good Causes and Miss Out to Help Out campaigns. Big-players using this approach include IKEA and Apple.

As for subdomains, the jury seems like it has decided against their use. While Google states that over time, all subdomains will be considered part of the same site, in practice this takes too long. This means that domain authority suffers when using subdomains. For this reason, the SEO community tends to avoid them. We tend to agree with that consensus.

In conclusion

When it comes to setting up a multi-language website, there are some hard choices to make. Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

If you have the budget (and SEO is your goal), we would recommend full translations of everything. If you just need to give key information in different languages, and you accept the SEO won't be as good, a reduced multi-language offering can save translations costs but might increase development fees.

If you're targeting a large number of languages, a generic top-level-domain with many different subdirectories might be your best bet. If you're only targeting a handful of key countries, you might prefer country-coded top-level-domains.

In fact, the only this we're certain on is what CMS you should use to manage your multi-language content: Craft CMS. For us, setting up a website on Craft, with a single license and tons of flexibility, is the easy part. No matter the requirements.

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