How to create a multilingual website

Updated Jan 6 2024 for simpler language.

A multilingual website means it’s available in more than one language. This is important because it might have a huge impact on your users, and it’s a key consideration for providing an accessible website. There are two main things to think about: do you want the back-end that powers your website to be in another language? Or do you want the site to show up in the language your visitor likes best?

Even in a country like Canada with two official languages, most websites only offer French and English if they’re government-related. But did you know that most online searches aren’t in English? Yep, only 25% of the internet is in English, and most searches are done in other languages. So, if your online shop isn’t in the language your customer uses, they might not find you in their search results.

Internationalization, sometimes referred to as “i18n”, is a big consideration for many companies, large and small. It is risky to assume that your client base is comfortable with transacting online in just English. Whether you’re looking to improve your user experience (UX) by offering your site in multiple languages, or you want to improve your buyer’s experience online, there are things you need to watch out for when you’re doing this. Here are five things to avoid:

5 Things to Avoid When Building a Multi Language Website

#1. Back away from Google Translate

Do NOT rely on Google Translate! It can be helpful to a certain extent, but the worst thing you could do to translate your website would be to copy and paste whole content into Google Translate, and back again. Google Translate can be helpful for ensuring that visitors will get a general idea of what you’re trying to say. But, cultures and keywords are different across the globe, and it’s not always just about translation (see #4 below!).

#2. Too Many Duplicate Pages in your Menu

The last thing you want to see is a menu bar with three home pages in three different languages. Three versions of every single page will overload your menu bar, and really diminish the user experience for your visitors. This is where having a language switcher comes in, where you have different versions of your site in different languages. This kind of multilingual website can make for a much smoother user experience!

#3. Using Fonts That Aren’t International

It’s easy to forget, but make sure you choose a font that displays special characters. French accents (like this: é) can totally change the meaning and pronunciation of a word, so they’re important to include and get right. You can read more about font choices here.

#4. Including Culturally Insensitive Photos, Words, Phrases

Watch out for outdated stock photos. Make sure images you’re using are inclusive and represent the people you’re writing for. If you’ve translated your site into 50 different languages, but only show images of one country, people, food, your message is not going to get across. The same applies to the language and words you use. And beware of unintentional ethnocentrism (cultural superiority complex) or even just cultural bias within your writing – are you really writing for a diverse international audience? Consider partnering with a local to translate your content.

#5. Messing Up Date and Time

If you’re an Excel nerd like us, you’re already familiar with this one:

1/10/2021.

What date is that? Is it Jan 10, 2021? Or is it Oct 1, 2021?

This is a small, simple thing that causes endless confusion on all sides of the ocean. Avoid it entirely by just writing out the full date instead: for example, January 10, 2021.

How to Easily Create a Multilingual WordPress Site

If you’re using WordPress, there are ways to make your site multilingual. You can use a plugin like WPML to help with translations and make sure your site is good for SEO too. Other website builders like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, and Shopify have different ways to handle multiple languages, but some are easier than others.

You can also read this WPBeginner article for some suggestions on creating a WordPress multilingual site.

Create a Multilingual Website With Other Site Builders

It’s true, there are other website builders out there, with varying features and levels of success.

Wix used to make you duplicate and translate all of your pages, but now their Wix Editor is integrated with Wix Multilingual (sites on Wix ADI are not integrated at time of this writing.) I have to point out that their own support forums encourage users to use Google Translate. (See my Tip #1 above for why that’s NOT a good idea.)

Weebly offers a few apps. From what I can tell, these are paid add-ons. Weebly’s Tutorials are outdated and reference using third-party services, many of which are no longer available, to translate your website content. I do not know if there is now a built-in feature – no offense to any Weebly lovers out there, but I doubt it.

With Squarespace, you’ll have to manually create each set of pages for each language you want to offer – or create a whole separate website for each language. And you’d probably need to upgrade your subscription in order to handle that number of pages.

Shopify does not offer its own native solution to make your store multilingual, but there are a couple different options – although only one of them really makes any sense in our opinion. You can have multiple stores (this might sound like a good idea at first, but it’s a nightmare to manage and maintain) OR you can use a multilingual app. The most common right now is an app called Weglot, which will let you add hundreds of languages to your store in minutes. It claims to take care of detecting and automatically translating the whole of your Shopify site (including checkout and email notifications), and it also handles the multilingual SEO of your newly translated store. 

Conclusion

Creating a website in more than one language might seem tough, but it’s really important to think about who your audience is and what languages they speak. Even checking simple demographics can help you understand who you’re talking to online – and the results just might surprise you.

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