Using Multilingual Websites

    April 16, 2002

An English-language site is fine for attracting Web visitors from English-speaking countries (only 5.6% of the world’s population), or from the sporadic English-speakers in the other countries. But the need for a second (and third) language on your site comes when it becomes obvious that you are missing out on sales to another country.

Even if your business process happens in English with your clients, you have to use other languages to attract new prospects from other countries.

The main point for multilingual Websites is that, as a marketing technique, Websites follow every other marketing technique (direct mail, print advertising, PR, radio, television, etc.) The main goal is to motivate someone to contact you, after which a conversation follows, which hopefully is finalized by them purchasing your product/service. So the real issue at hand is getting the attention of those who might be interested in your product/service. And the first contact with your audience abroad always happens in their own language… not in English.

People live their lives in their own language, and, what is even more important, the background language of their thinking process is their own language. Even if they engage in a conversation in English, read an English newspaper, watch an American film… the background language of their mind is still their own language. This is where your marketing message has to reach, in order to draw their full interest.

When you travel abroad, you are submerged in a foreign language, even in countries where people are quite fluent in English (Holland, Scandinavia). The newspaper ads are not in English, nor are the TV or radio ads; businesses receive direct mail in their own language, not in English. Your Web site falls into the same schema — at least one page has to attract their attention in their own language. If this page succeeds in interesting them, and they click to find out more, well, your hyperlinks might feed back into your English- language Website. Here you might lose them, if they do not read English so well. But often, their interest has been spurred, and they’ll make the effort to understand more about your product/service.

Our conclusion is that you will need the more important pages translated for every language of the countries you want to target that speak those languages. Obviously, the more pages you translate of your Website, the better, but you certainly need at least one page that summarizes your offering. For Southern European countries, Germany and Japan, you really should translate several of your Website’s more important pages, since many people in these countries do not read much English, and even if they do, they will be shy about writing you about their interest. And that is the last thing you want to have happen –people go to your Website, become interested, but do not write you because they feel their English writing ability is not good enough.

There are numerous companies who translate Websites, and as long as you use native speakers, the end-result should read well. Be sure to use hyperlinks between pages of the same languages. The search engines follow links when they build their database of Websites and rank them on certain keywords. It helps to have all the pages in your site in German, for instance, to be linked to each other, since search engine robots follow these links, and your site can be ranked higher in a user’s search.

There are some high-end software available to manage a multilingual site, so that when the content is changed in English, it is translated and changed in other languages. This idea should be left for later when you are devoting a high budget to your mutlilingual site ($500 K to $2 M). Use your marketing funds to build traffic to your multilingual site first, to make it a success in its early stages.

Localizing a Website is a project that can take years, and you need to show ROI as soon as possible after starting the process. So limit the number of languages initially to two or three (hopefully major languages). You can “fold in” more translated material later on, so start with the basic 5-8 subjects of your Website in translated form. Add more pages in another few months. The site will grow over time in other languages. What is important is for the site to produce sales leads that can be acted upon. The more foreign sales that are produced by the site, the more credibility your translation project will have. And when the non-English part of your site starts earning its way, it will not be so hard to allot more budget to it in the future.

Bill Dunlap is CEO for Global Reach, specializing in building traffic to multilingual Websites to boost international sales. 408/980-7426 or 888/942-6426 (toll-free) +331/5301-0741 (Europe)