Mind your language: Using multilingual websites to increase eCommerce engagement

Paul Halfpenny is a founding partner and CTO at Filter Digital, a London-based agency that works with international clients to help deliver digital transformation and consults on CRM and digital strategies. He is also a CTO for three start-up businesses and advises smaller businesses on their strategies for growth and tech.

In the quest for customers the battlegrounds for online retailers tend to be rooted in SEO, PPC campaigns and, for those who can afford it, above-the-line ad campaigns. But there are also more organic ways to increase engagement and conversions via a website, particularly where international brands are concerned.

One technique that is often disregarded by all but the biggest players due to fears over cost and complexity is a true multilingual online retail experience.

Historically, there are two ways of approaching this – one website with multiple versions of the same page for each language required or multiple individual localised sites, each with its own bespoke content.

However, there are many factors to consider when going multilingual for key markets like the Russia, the Middle East and Asia, such as catering for R-L orientation, the complex nature of the Cyrillic alphabet and Simplified Chinese; and the challenge of ensuring that the site SEO is correctly targeted and handled for search engines to interpret.

While scoping a recent WordPress project for an international jewellery brand that required all of the above localisations, we took the decision to use WPML, which offers clear advantages in cost transparency and translation workflow, whilst handling complex taxonomy structures in an easy-to-use format.

WPML is a well-maintained plug-in with frequent updates and it plays well with other plug-ins, specifically with WooCommerce. It supports the variety of translation methods that we wanted, and it allows translation to be edited in real-time using the same tools as content in the original language.

It also has a large user base, which means that the extensive support archives provide a good resource for technical challenges.

But while choosing the right technical tools is a key step, it’s really only the beginning of the project – there is a huge element of process involved too.

One of the most important stages in taking a site multilingual is identifying what needs to be translated. Professional translation is expensive, so controlling your word count is vital to controlling the overall project cost.

There are a number of different methodologies for estimating the word count for a website and they will all give you different answers. The challenge is identifying and accounting for repetition in the content to be translated. To help keep it simple you can divide your content into four broad categories and treat each one separately:

  • Pages and posts: These are the simplest parts of a WordPress site to work with in translation. Identify the pages of the website that you know you will want translated and the posts that will be shown on those pages. You may or may not want your standard terms and conditions, privacy notices and other supporting content to be translated. Excluding this contact from the process can save you a lot of words. In WPML you can create translation jobs directly from this content and analyse the generated jobs to assess their word count
  • Taxonomies: If your website is a product showcase then you will probably be using multiple categories within the site to help organise your products and to make them easy to find. This is particularly true of ecommerce sites. These categories are taxonomies and they can be dealt with separately. This means that each category name will only need translating once, no matter how many times that text appears on the site. WPML configuration tools allow you to identify the taxonomies that you want to send for translation
  • Navigation: Taxonomies usually form part of your site’s menus, but there will probably be other menu structures that are used in site navigation all over the site. Treating these separately will again reduce your overall word count and the associated translation costs
  • Strings: This is a general term covering text that is often buried quite deep in your modules and themes. Forms may be built using strings and, depending on the way your site is built, there will be quite a few different sorts of strings to be considered. It’s worth noting that if you use a theme in WordPress then that theme does need to be marking up text strings in a way that WPML can understand. We’d already done this work on our own theme, but if you’re using a third-party theme they you may need to work with the authors to make sure that this work is done and that the theme is translation friendly.

This last stage does take some time to get through, but an accurate word count gives information you need to negotiate the best possible rate with a selected translation agency. This info really helps scope the initial project and, just as importantly, get a good idea of what the ongoing translation costs are likely to be.

So far, the multilingual efforts have been borne out in the analytics – in the five-month period since translations went live compared to the year earlier period, we saw a doubling in the proportion of visitors to the site who are using Chinese. Arabic Language sessions went up by 180%, with Russian Language Sessions up by 57% for the same period.

The multilingual visitor growth also necessitated some clever workarounds to past the great firewall of China, but that’s a story for another day.

Ultimately, multilingual websites needn’t be economically prohibitive to create – the key is establishing the right tools and the most efficient content methodology.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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