Translating Web Sites

I recently talked to someone who was in the process of translating their current web site (which is now in English) into several additional languages so he could appeal to more potential customers worldwide. By using the existing domain name and simply “adding pages to the site” in other languages, he thought he could save some money by not having to purchase additional domain names. I proceeded to explain to my friend that his idea of translating the site into different languages was a good one–but trying to save money is a bad marketing decision altogether. Multilingual web sites and merely translating the existing site into other languages is not a good marketing decision. It’s more effective to use only one language per domain name and establish an online presence in the country where you intend to do business.

If you are going to translate an existing web site into another language or several languages, the recommended method is to use only one language per domain name. I suggest that you host the site in the appropriate country, as well (for example, use a .fr TLD for French and host it in France). If you can also set up a local office in that country, that would be ideal. When you set up a web site and domain name, you are setting up a business–and by establishing a presence in the country using that country’s native tongue is much more powerful than simply adding a few web pages to your existing web site.

One option is to use sub-domains on your existing domain name (e.g., francais.yourdomain.com). While using sub-domains separates the languages into different sections of your web site, they are ultimately a barrier when it comes to doing business online. If your business is located in the United States, someone from Germany or France may be leery of doing business with you–simply because your business is not located in their country. (The same thing happens when I buy things online–I prefer to do business with someone located in the United States rather than someone in another country even though they speak my same language.)

Potential cost shouldn’t really be an issue or determining factor when it comes to translating and setting up new web sites. The cost of an additional domain name is minimal at this point, as buying a domain name is rather inexpensive. When choosing another domain name for a new/additional language, many people choose to use their current domain name and simply use another TLD. For example, if your main web site is in English on www.companyname.com and you’re translating your site into French, it would be appropriate to use www.companyname.fr. If for whatever reason it’s not available, then you might consider adding a hyphen or selecting something similar to your company name or perhaps even your main keyword in French. Typically, domain names containing keywords are still available in many country-specific TLDs. Still another option might be to select a domain name that includes your company name in addition to a keyword.

By setting up a new domain name and using one language for that whole site, you’re setting up the equivalent of a new internet business in that language. Other web sites will see your site as a separate web site from your other web sites in other languages. That’s a good thing, as that entitles you to additional directory listings in the country-specific Yahoo! Directory, DMOZ, and other influential web site directories in that language. In addition, other web sites in your industry that are in the same language will be more apt to link to your web site if it’s entirely in their language. For example, let’s say you sell red widgets–you have a lot of links from other sites that talk about red widgets but they’re in English. With a new French site about red widgets, other French web sites that talk about red widgets will link to your French site–they will probably not link to your site that is in English. In a time where links from other web sites are crucial for good organic search engine rankings, it is a good practice to remove any barriers such as language barriers that might stop another web site from linking to you.

Regional versions of certain major search engines tend to favor web sites that are in the same language and that are hosted in the same country. If someone uses www.Google.fr (Google France) to search in French, web sites that are in French and hosted in France are favored in the organic search results. Therefore, it is recommended that your French language web site use a .fr TLD and is hosted on a web server that is physically located in France. I realize that certain countries are preferred when it comes to web hosting, so for redundancy purposes it would make sense to host the site in the country first–and have backup servers in another country (you can specify several different nameservers when setting up the domain) if availability and bandwidth is an issue.

When doing the actual translating of your current web site, it’s best to use translators located in the country you’re targeting–they know the language best. If at all possible, if your company employs local salespeople or marketing staff in that country then you might consider having them write or translate the copy on the web site–they know the product and any important selling points and local “slang” that is important to include. Also, they will know the major web portals in their country (where the web site should be listed) as well as the major keywords that the site should target–translators from other countries might be able to translate the web site’s copy, but they may not be as familiar with the keywords that are important to include. Although computer-generated translation tools are available, do not use them to translate a web site from one language to another–the copy will not read well and visitors to the site will be turned off when they visit the site.

If you translate your web site into another language, you must be prepared to back up all the new business that the web site will generate. You must have someone available to speak that language–your salespeople should be located in that country and be ready to work with any potential customers that visit your web site. Just because you translate your web site into another language doesn’t mean that you’re done–be prepared to continue to support it by adding content on a regular basis, getting links to the site from other web sites in the same language, and promoting it just like you would with any other web site.

On web sites that are translated into languages other than English, it’s important to include a local phone number. I’ve talked to many people over the years about web sites in languages other than English, and there seems to be a trend–web surfers in countries other than the United States and Canada do not trust web sites as much as Americans and Canadians do. For example, when buying something online, Americans and Canadians will buy online and enter their credit card information without ever talking to the someone at the business. However, visitors from other countries tend to want some sort of ‘personalized touch’ during the buying process. By adding a local contact phone number and address/location, you increase the chances that they will purchase online. For example, one retailer I talked to translated their web site into another language (the main site was in English). They couldn’t figure out why no one was buying anything online although they had a lot of visitors from their country (the new translated site was in French, hosted in France, and had a .fr TLD). The retailer added their phone number and local contact information in the footer of every page on the site. The phone immediately started to ring off the hook and they were able to help people purchase online while they were on the phone. In this particular case, the customers wanted a personalized touch, and adding the local contact information helped tremendously, especially because the company is a major American retailer doing business for the first time online in that country. The web site’s visitors wanted assurance that they were doing business with a local company.

Translating a web site into another language may sound easy–and it can be done without even knowing the other language. However, it’s not something to be taken lightly–there are a lot of other considerations if your online business in that language is going to be successful. It’s important to stay away from using automated tools to translate the site; rather, use local translators who fully understand the business in their country and make sure you have local sales staff to back up that business. You’re not just translating a web site into another language–you’re establishing an online business in that language as well as a local presence in the country you’re targeting.