Common mistakes to avoid when building multilingual websites

Internationalization is a normal process and today every company needs to think globally. When you have already reached top positions in your homeland, your business can only expand in other countries and the best way to gain new customers is to translate your website.

However, in terms of web development and design, multilingual websites demand a bit more than mere translation. In fact, multilingual websites are beyond just words and their equivalents and designers often forget that they need to adjust them to a whole different culture and customs.

In order to avert disaster and protect your company’s reputation in a foreign country, here are eight tips for eschewing typical mistakes in web design and development on multilingual websites.

The most frequent mistakes in multilingual web design and development (and how to avoid them):

1. Machine translation

Human translators are always a better option than machine translation.

Solution: Hire a real person. An experienced translator. Translators are people of flesh and blood, educated and trained to produce an accurate and appropriate translation. Their role is not mere scribbling or retyping words in a different language — their job is to bridge the gap between two cultures and make connections when there are none. Natural language can be processed only by a living being, And remember to never go for the cheapest option, because this may cost you the most in the long run: you can offend your potential business partners and lose your position in a foreign market for good.

2. Language options misplacement

The best position for language picker in LTR languages is the top right corner of your website.

Solution: In LTR languages, this button is usually placed in the right upper corner so that visitors can see it the moment they enter your website. On the other hand, in RTL languages, the button is placed in the left upper corner of the website. When there are many languages available on your website, you can use a drop-down menu which enlists them all. However, the position of the language picker can differ according to website purpose. For example, if your website is an informative one and you want to let visitors know that there are different versions of your page, you can place the picker in the left sidebar, just like Wikipedia did. People are so accustomed to this position that they instantly look for language options in this position on other encyclopedic websites as well.

Choosing languages in Wikipedia is in the left sidebar.

There is also the option of automatic language detection, which implies that your website recognizes the visitor’s location and chooses the language on its own. Just ask your web developer to perform this on your website.

3. No culture awareness

People dressed differently in Arabic countries.

Solution: The right answer to this question is to research. Find out what the customs of the country are and try to go with neutral principles. For example, in the west it is normal for people to use images of women in T-shirts and with hair flowing around; however, in the east, this may seem offensive since their women are protected from the eyes of foreigners. If you want to respect your target country’s customs, you will accept this and adjust your design accordingly. Similarly, color psychology and color theory also depend on culture and customs. In the west, it is normal for people to use blue for IT companies; on the other hand, in the east (e.g. in Korea or Mexico), blue is the color of mourning.

4. Content organization

Arabic BBC’s menu is on the left, as well as the articles and texts.

Solution: That is right, in countries where people write from right to left (RTL) such as Israel, Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan, websites look differently to adjust to their needs, so the menu will also give you options and links in an RTL direction. Likewise, the organization of elements in these websites will also be different, so you will have to put the language option in the left top corner of the site and menu in a mirror image of a western website. So, before you start redesigning your multilingual website, you should check your target country’s script direction on the w3 website.

5. Encoding and special characters

Not all fonts and scripts can be shown on your website unless you use UTF-8.

Solution: It is quite simple: if you want all characters to be shown properly, use UTF-8 character encoding in the head of the page: <meta charset=”utf-8">. This Unicode-based encoding supports many languages and can accommodate them even when there is a mixture of different languages in one and the same page. Likewise, the font you are using must be adapted to hundreds of different characters that non-Latin scripts use, so you need to find alternatives on the Google Fonts website.

6. Duplicate content

Hreflang can help you tell Google which page is written in a different language.

Solution: To solve this problem, your developer or SEO specialist should identify a preferred language variety for each location and/or language. So, for example, if you have the same content for Australian, Canadian and British websites, your developer should assign a <link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-uk” /> or en-au or en-nz alternatives for each location. This head element will tell Google or other search engines that the variation is used for English speakers living in the UK (or Australia, or New Zealand, respectively), and will give them a proper ranking in the local search engine.

7. Dates and orthography

International calls demand different prefixes for every continent.

Solution: To avoid this, learn or Google what date formats and other orthographic principles apply for your target country and use them consistently throughout the website to avoid confusion. If you want people from abroad to call you, you also need to provide them with your country code.

8. No word of SEO

Local SEO can help you rank better on your local search engine (.de, .es, .rs, etc.).

Solution: It is best to hire an SEO agency or an expert to go through your website code in every language you have on your website and adjust it to the rules of the local search engine. Without this, there is no use even having a website if it cannot be found on Google.

Back to you: what do you think are the worst mistakes that can happen in terms of web design and development of multilingual websites? Tell us in the comments below.

Like this article? Learn more about web design and development:

· 7 tips for choosing the right web design agency

· Basic SEO for web designers: how to boost user satisfaction

Article originally published on on January 11, 2018.

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