WordPress Multilingual – When, Why, and How

Published in WordPress.

English might be the lingua franca of the world, but it’s only the third language by native speakers, after Mandarin and Spanish. And if you take a closer look at English Proficiency Levels (which analyzes English as a foreign language), you might be surprised to discover that there’s plenty of countries in which English is not that common. Spain, for instance, is reported to have a “moderate proficiency” in English and, compared to European countries, it comes almost at the end (#19 out of 27). This might not seem very important, but it actually is; if you’re thinking about launching a new website or expanding your current web to new markets, you need to know your audience. And this means you’ll probably need to speak their language.

The Importance of Language

One of the first things you need to do when launching a new website is to consider your audience, so that you can address it as they expect you to. Your web has to be designed for your visitors—selling products to women over 40 is completely different to discussing video-games on a blog for teenagers. Getting this right is crucial if you want to succeed. And language plays an important role in this facet.

If you’re interested in selling to the states or UK, addressing your audience in English makes perfect sense. But if you’re thinking about Spain or Latin American countries, you might want to add Spanish into the equation too. But, what if you want to address a bigger market? What if you want to become 100% international? What about Italian, French, or German? Did someone just say Asia?

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by Eric Constantineau
Address your audience in their language. Image by Eric Constantineau.

There’s plenty of companies, startups, and freelancers who yearn for international success, and they decide to address multiple markets all at once following one simple strategy—offering their products or services in English only. And, hey, I’m not saying this is a bad idea—as I said in the beginning, English is our lingua franca, right? In fact, that’s exactly what we, the Nelio team, did when we first launched Nelio A/B Testing—a service whose website is only in English.

But then you go back to the statistics I shared before and realize that maybe, just maybe, this strategy is not that clever. Maybe English alone won’t do it for you. Maybe you must address your audience using their language.

Do I Need a Multilingual Site?

And here’s the million dollar question—do you really need a multilingual site? According to what I said, it looks like you do… but it really depends on what you need. A quick search on Google reveals tons of articles presenting several reasons for using one. For instance, this article by Belinda Jara in LinkedIn mentions a few:

  1. You can shift away from English Internet users and “try to acquire users in markets that are currently in their growth stages”.
  2. Your marketing strategy might improve a lot, “having the ability to communicate to a whole new international audience in their own language will undoubtedly yield results”.
  3. It demonstrates “you are thinking about the customer”, that you care about them.
  4. It also builds trust. “For many cultures there is an issue of trust when it comes to buying over the internet, especially if they feel it is in a language they are not fully proficient in. Offering them a language alternative allows the customers to feel secure in the fact they know what they are buying, how and who from”.
  5. It can also be the reason for your beating your competitors, especially if they don’t offer their services in languages other than English.
  6. It shows an “International Nature”.
  7. It helps your SEO, for your website will be indexed in other languages too.

As I said, there’s plenty of reasons for considering a multilingual site. But beware! Don’t fool yourself into thinking that multilingual will give you the extra boost your business or web needs. Clearly, offering a website in multiple languages should help you reach a broader audience, and that’s usually a good idea. But that comes for a price—running a multilingual website entails a lot of work. Just consider this blog as an example—it’s only in two languages (Spanish and English), but translating all our blog posts into both languages takes us several hours per month.

Flags, by Raja Habib
Multilingual sites entail extra work, for you’ll have to manage multiple versions (one per language) of your posts and pages. Image by Raja Habib.

My advise is, don’t use multilingual just “because you can”. Instead, think of your target audience and analyze their habits and needs—if they’re not proficient in English, consider adding their language in your website.

How Do I Add Multilingual Capabilities to my WordPress Site?

Surprisingly, WordPress doesn’t support multilingual installations natively. They’re working hard on bringing the platform into as many languages as possibles (the Polyglots team is doing a fantastic job), and there’s some debate around native multilingual support… but don’t expect it any time soon.

Does this mean you can’t run a multilingual WordPress? Of course you can! WordPress is the fantastic tool it is because of its endless alternatives for doing virtually anything. If you want to run a multilingual site with WordPress, you can—and there’s plenty of ways for doing so. Let’s take a look at the most common!

WordPress Multisite

A few days ago I wrote about what WordPress Multisite is and how you can enable it in your own installation. Basically, “WordPress multisite is a feature that gives you the ability to create a network of sites from one single WordPress. If you need to manage more than one site, a multisite setup might be the solution you need”.

If you think about multilingual sites for a moment, you might realize that they look like multiple different sites, each of which is in its own language. Therefore, it seems possible to use WordPress Multisites for running a multilingual installation, doesn’t it? Using WordPress Multisite, we can create as many different sub-sites as we want, each of which will use its own language. All these sub-sites will share the plugins and themes (which is great, because we probably want all of them to look and behave in exactly the same way or at least similarly).

Again, our website is a good example. Nelio Software is a multisite installation with two sub-sites: one in Spanish and another one in English. Both sites are under the same domain, and they include a widget in the footer for switching from one language to the other. Simple and efficient 😀.

Multilingual Plugins

As always, the WordPress ecosystem solves most of the problems you might encounter via plugins. And multilingual sites are no exception. If you want to run a multilingual site, you simply need to select, install, and configure a multilingual plugin. It’s that simple! The main benefit of multilingual plugins (compared to multisite installations) is translation management:

  • In a multisite, each “language variation” of your site is a completely different sub-site in your “network of blogs“. Sub-sites have their own pages, their own blog posts, their own themes… Sure, some assets might be shared (such as the list of available plugins or themes), but the sites behave as if they’re completely unrelated.
  • In a WordPress site with a multilingual plugin, the content of the site itself becomes “translatable”. That is, the plugin will manage the different translations of your pages, posts, and so on. In other words, there’s a “single” page, post, menu… and the plugin takes care of its translations. This makes it easy for your visitors to switch from one language to the other.

Let’s take a look at the most-well-known multilingual plugins and briefly discuss their pros and cons.

WPML

WPML is one of the oldest multilingual plugins available. With this plugin, you’ll be able to translate everything in your WordPress site. WPML is a premium plugin. The available plans (at the moment of writing this post) are:

  1. Multilingual basic blog for $29, with support and updates during one year.
  2. Multilingual CMS for $79, with support and updates during one year.
  3. A lifetime license for a single payment of $195.

If you need a multilingual site, WPML’s pricing is totally reasonable, especially when considering all the functionalities it includes (even though its competitors are free):

  • You can translate posts, pages, media, categories, tags, menus, widgets, custom post types, custom taxonomies…
  • It’s compatible with a lot of plugins and themes, and they even have a compatibility program to ensure things work as expected.
  • There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can give it a shot and, if you don’t like the plugin or if it doesn’t fit your needs, you can “return it” and get your money back.
  • Its development team is very active.
  • They even offer a professional translation service, which might come very handy if you need to translate your content to a language you don’t know.

If you want to know how to install and configure WPML in your web, follow WPMayor’s Guide on Creating a Multilingual Website Using WPML. It’s a complete and detailed document that will guide you throughout the whole process, step by step.

Polylang

Polylang is a free plugin available on WordPress.org. At the moment of writing this post, it has over 200,000 active installations and a pretty good rating (there are over 400 5-star votes, and it scores 4.8 out of 5). And for a very good reason—Polylang includes most of the functionalities we can find in WPML completely for free. Not bad, huh?

Some of its features are:

  • You can translate posts, pages, media, categories, tags, menus, widgets, custom post types, custom taxonomies…
  • UI is available in multiple languages.
  • There’s an active development team. Support, however, relies on the community (if you use the free version).
  • There’s also a paid version of Polylang that has more extensions, some extra functionalities and advanced support services.

qTranslate X

Finally, another plugin quite used by the community (100,000 active installations and 220 5-star votes tell you so) is qTranslate X. Some of our customers used it and, therefore, I had the chance to see it in action, so I can tell you it’s easy to use and fast.

The main difference between qTranslate X and the other two is how translations are stored in the database. Let’s see if I can give you a hint on how each plugin works.

In WPML, translated content is stored in a different, new entry. So, if you translate a certain post from English to Spanish, your database will look like this:

  1. Original English Post
    • post_title
      Original Title
    • post_content
      Original content.
  2. Translated Spanish Post
    • post_title
      Título traducido
    • post_content
      Contenido traducido

qTranslate X follows a different approach and stores all the information within the same post, tagging each “translation” appropriately. Thus, for instance, the previous example would look like this:

  1. Single (Original) Post
    • post_title
      [:en]Original Title[:es]Título traducido[:]
    • post_content
      [:en]Original content.[:es]Contenido traducido.[:]

I think it’s a clever solution, but I honestly ignore how well this solution plays with other plugins and themes…

Weglot

Weglot is a freemium plugin available on WordPress.org. Launched last February, it grew from 50+ to 5,000+ active installations (over 150 5-star votes, scoring 4.8 out of 5.0).
The plugin follows a different approach for translating content—it automatically detects all the content and offers a first layer of machine translation, so that you can then edit/improve/replace it with a friendly interface.

Some of its features are:

  • It translates all the contents.
  • 5 min to set it up tops.
  • Compatible with all Themes and Plugins.
  • Dedicated support team.

Tips to Consider Before Going Multilingual

Spend some time looking at the different options available before choosing one or the other. No solution is better than the others—it all depends on which one better suits your needs. Do you need power? Simplicity? Do you feel more comfortable with a certain user interface than the other? Make the choice based on your personal needs—but remember, once you’ve selected one option, it might not be easy to migrate to a different one!

Make sure you backup your database before using any of these plugins—they all change the database deeply, and if things go wrong (or if you don’t like one plugin and want to go back to a previous state), the backup will save you time and problems. If your hosting provider allows you to create staging environments, you can use one for testing purposes too.

Wrapping Up…

There’s plenty of reasons for switching to a multilingual website, but make sure you really need it, or else the extra work will end up killing your website (or you’ll simply abandon de multilingual attempt). If you clearly identify that your target audience speaks another language other than English, and believe that adding that language to your website might increase your website’s performance, don’t hesitate and go for it! Remember WordPress doesn’t support multilingual sites natively, but there are different alternatives for you to choose. Study them all, try them all out, and choose the one that better suits your needs.

If you already have a multilingual WordPress, why don’t you share your experience with us? How did you implemented it? Is it worth it?

Featured Image by Karen Roe.

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3 thoughts on “WordPress Multilingual – When, Why, and How

  1. In my experience, the most classic error translating WordPress sites is forget to translate slugs!!! I think that it would be interesting to write a post about tips and typical errors during translation process.

    On the other hand, WPML is not recommended for beginners although is the most complete option. Maybe qTranslate has a easier interface for newbies.

    1. Hi Ismael,

      Thanks for your comment! Indeed, there are plenty of common errors that (we?) people do when translating sites in general… and skipping slugs is one of them.

      I agree with you that a post discussing this issue could be interesting, even though we don’t have anything like this planned right now. Anyway, if you’d like to help us with that, we’re open to contributions 😀

      Regards,
      David

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