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Common mistakes on multilingual websites and how to avoid them.


Thanks to globalisation, selling products and services abroad has become relatively straight forward and offers enormous opportunities for businesses of all sizes. But how can you be sure that your foreign audience will click that buy button or fill in that contact form? We’ve put together a list of the most common mistakes that people make when developing an online presence overseas.

  1. Not localising your website

A large percentage of consumers will only buy products and services available in their own language (42% according to the Common Sense Advisory), while even more said that the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price (56% according to the same report). That’s a huge number of potential customers lost before they’ve even had a chance to appreciate your product. So, if you want to reach a specific audience, don’t assume that they’ll speak your language.

  • Using machine translation

Marketing is all about perception and trust. As such, poorly written web copy will put people off your brand instantly. Despite gigantic advances in machine translation, it still lacks the kind of creativity and cultural awareness that only comes with professional human translation. Indeed, a relatively small investment in a professional service will ensure that your website copy is well-written and SEO friendly.

  • Implementing the hreflang attribute incorrectly

The hreflang attribute tells Google which language a webpage is written in. This helps Google direct the user to the right page based on their history and location, indexes your site correctly and stops Google penalising you for having duplicate content. For example, if you have localised content in British English, Canadian English and Australian English, the hreflang attribute will tell Google that these pages are, in fact, destined for three different locales:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com” hreflang=”en-uk” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com” hreflang=”en-au” />

<link rel=”alternate” href=”example.com” hreflang=”en-ca” />

Given the high number of websites that have hreflang mistakes (75% according to SEMrush), it’s well worth taking the time to ensure that these attributes are correct.

  • Choosing the wrong language selector position

Make sure that you’re your language options are clearly visible and where they would normally be for your target audience. There are several options available to you, depending on which languages you have available.

It is not uncommon for large websites with numerous language options to have a pop-up asking the user which version of the site they would like to navigate when they enter the website. This avoids making an assumption about the person’s preferences, which can irritate some people.

Alternatively, you can place a dropdown menu, flag or icon in the top right-hand corner (particularly for LTR websites, or in the top-left for RTL websites). Some sites, like Facebook, prefer to have their language options in the footer.

  • Using flags as a language selector

When localising a website, it’s helpful to remember that flags symbolise countries, not languages. While this may not seem like such a big deal, some people will look for their own country’s flag, but this may not be visible. Take Spanish for example. There are twenty countries that speak the Spanish language, and only one Spanish flag. Using the language code (i.e. EN, ES, FR etc.) or word (Spanish, English, French etc.) will make the website easier to navigate and is less likely to cause offense.

  • Lacking cultural awareness

You’ve spent time and money localising your website, yet you’re not getting the returns you’d hoped for. It could be because your images and other website elements are not culturally sensitive. For example, if you have an Arabic version of your website, make sure that the people in your images are appropriately dressed. Colour psychology also plays an important part here, given the varying depth of meaning that colours play in different cultures. In Western cultures, for example, the colour green means luck, freshness, spring and environmental awareness, while in Indonesia has traditionally been forbidden, and in the Middle East it represents fertility, luck and wealth. The only real way to do this right is by researching your target culture.

  • Getting the layout wrong

In addition to having well written copy, your website design will also have a major impact on the decision of site visitors, even sub-consciously. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95% of our purchase decisions take place in the subconscious mind. Make sure your content is organised in a way that offers your target audience the optimal user experience.

Keytext provides translation and multilingual copywriting services for those that want to communicate clearly in any language. Feel free to contact us for a free, no-obligation quote.

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