Common Mistakes You Can Make When Translating a Website

Common Mistakes You Can Make When Translating a Website

Deciding how to globalise your web presence is a major challenge for any business that’s expanding its ambitions overseas. Having a web presence for each of your global audiences is pretty essential to your success but it’s also a risk.

Get it wrong and you may fail to reap all the benefits of your new market presence – or even alienate your audience.

Setting up a translated version of your core website is a technical, as well as a language, challenge. Taking the optimum technical approach to a web translation project can help you create the best possible user experience and maximise your traffic from search.

Google will work with you to some extent; play by its preferred way of doing things and it will improve the chances that the correct version of your site will be served to your global audiences.

Instructing Google accurately

Implementing the hreflang attribute correctly is of vital importance if the right version of your site is to be served to the right user.

Introduced by Google in 2011, the hreflang attribute effectively instructs Google which language you are using on any given page, so the appropriate version can be served to a user based on their history and location. It’ll also help Google index your site appropriately.

Yet this attribute tends to be poorly implemented. Last year Search Engine Journal found 75% of all multilingual websites had mistakes in the way their hreflang was applied. Custom-built websites are apparently particularly vulnerable to this kind of mistake.

If you’re already up and running in multiple markets it’s well worth checking your hreflang attributes are properly implemented – it may boost your search rankings if you can correct any mistakes.

Another common technical error is to misunderstand the purpose of the canonical tag. Google doesn’t penalise websites for duplicate content if the pages are translated versions of one another.

Providing the right canonical indicates which version of the page is to be delivered in the search results page. This stops those ‘duplicate’ pages competing against one another in results. For example, multiple localised versions of the same product page.

If you’re catering to US and UK audiences you’re likely to have location-specific pages that are in the same language but only relevant locally.

Hreflang tag

An example of the hreflang tag for an English website in the US using the appropriate language and country codes.

A good example of this is a product with multiple versions, some of which are only available in one location. Setting up the hreflang annotations correctly should be enough to sort this out properly without confusing Google.

Be wary of applying the no-index tag – some webmasters do this out of fear of being penalised for duplicating content. In reality, this shouldn’t be necessary and you’re just frustrating the proper indexing of your site.

Language selectors

It’s good practice to suggest users redirect themselves to their local site but you shouldn’t force visitors to use any particular version of the site. Many will have their own reasons for choosing a particular version of your website. For example, they might be a British national based in France using a device with a French browser installed – but they still want to see the British version of your site.

Many multi-version sites choose to do this by offering a popup that allows the user to select their preferred version of the site at entry. Ideally, your website would remember their preference thereafter.

Levis’s prompt its users with a location pop-up when visiting its site for the first time.

This ‘choose for yourself’ type of approach also works alongside Google, because the search engine can go to any page in any version of your website. From both a user and an SEO perspective, subfolders (rather than subdomains) are usually the best approach.

If you don’t have the full range of pages on a site translated into a particular language, it’s tricky to know what to do when redirecting a user.

Your best approach is to send them to the next most relevant page in their own language. Avoid just dropping them back on the local homepage, or (worse) telling them that page just isn’t available to them. Both will annoy and frustrate the user.


Remember of course to design your website so that users can easily browse to a different location version of your website than the one they are on.

Your language/location selector functionality should be clearly visible and straightforward to use. Adjust your design according to whether you’re using geo-locational approaches to direct your audience to the right version of the site for them.

A more discreet design for the permanent language selector functionality is more appropriate if you’re using a pop-up window at the start of the journey to push the user to the right version for them.

Location selector tools are a bit like subtitled films. English speaking audiences aren’t very used to them and tend to be fairly hostile to the concept. Speakers of minority languages are very used to them and don’t mind them. Familiarity is really the key.

You may find your US and UK audiences aren’t very receptive to having to select their language as they’ll assume it should be English by default. Polish speaking audiences are usually more accustomed to needing to do this.

Another way to annoy your audiences is leaving your page URLs in their original language. Not only is this detrimental to your search ambitions but it’s also a bit insulting to users as it’s clearly not a fully translated page.

Localised URLs not only allow you to compete in international SERPs to better serve your customers, users are also assured that they’re using a version of your website that’s fully translated.

Translate your URLs at the same time you translate that page content, and be mindful of keywords. Keywords in URLs contribute to SEO. You can also support your SEO efforts by using the appropriate country domain (eg .ca for a Canadian site, .fr for a French one) and supporting the development of regional backlinks into your site.

Small details like these contribute to the success of your local web presence. Although managing a suite of international versions of your site is a complex task, having a well-established and user-focused local site is important to your presence in any market. Avoid giving your local competitors an advantage over you and get your local websites right!

For more information about how to prepare and execute an effective website localisation strategy, download our Definitive Guide to Website Localisation and start applying best practice website localisation techniques and processes for your organisation’s localisation projects.
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Written by Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams is a Digital Marketing Specialist at TranslateMedia and has previous eCommerce experience working with a number of luxury brands in the fashion and beauty industry. He enjoys photography, binge-watching Netflix and can often be found roaming around London with a camera in his hand.

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