“My business is doing really well. 70% of our orders come from overseas and we have agents and distributors in every country who do all the talking in local language for us.

We’re in the top three of Google results for our product and business is growing gently. So why would I need to spend money on a multilingual website? I don’t believe I need one – my English one is doing the job.”

There are probably around 3 billion Internet users in the world – or there will be by the time you read this.
Of these, 641 million are in China, 279 million in the US, 243 million in India, 109 million in Japan, 107 million in Brazil, 84 million in Russia, 71 million in Germany, 67 million in Nigeria, 57 million in the UK and 55 million in France.

The potential revenue from these Internet users – consumers, businesses, public services and more – is a staggering £27 trillion, worldwide. But with your English language website you can only address one third of that. If your business relies on the possibility that someone in deepest Bulgaria can speak a bit of English and therefore will be able to pass on your carefully-crafted key messages to non-English speakers, then your company’s future there is in very uncertain hands. How much better, how much more authoritative and welcomed would a Bulgarian version of your website be? Accessible to all, your website will not only be relevant and clear about your product offerings, it will also be findable on local language search engines – your Google ranking in the UK? Completely irrelevant in Bulgaria.

The problem is that many companies feel that English is spoken universally to a greater or lesser extent. If you’re doing business in Scandinavia, Germany, India, USA, Australia then yes, your English site will be usable (although again, not necessarily findable on search engines) by most people. However, in Europe, the further South and East you go, the less accessible your site will be. Are you addressing business to business in Spain or Italy for example? You may think that they are all fluent in English, if you judge from your holiday conversations with hotel and restaurant staff. Get out of the tourist areas and into a small chemical company in the industrial estates of Barcelona and you’ll find that English is a lot less used.

And what of your competitors? Do they rely on this “hopeful” approach to web content penetration? You can be certain that they are thinking about exactly the same things as you are:

  • Should we have a multilingual website?
  • Should we have a Search Engine Optimisation strategy for our key languages?
  • Should we be considering social media activity in local languages?
  • Should we make all our communications with customers, prospects, suppliers, distributors and dealers in local language?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes by any of your competitors, then watch for a shift in the balance of sales between you and them.

If your content is only in English then you are reaching 26% of global Internet users with it. Add in Chinese and that zooms up to 51%!

Another question you should ask yourself is, how many products have you bought from China recently – oh, I mean, from Chinese language websites? I’m betting not many. Why? Because you cannot read the website. They could be one of the best potential partners for your business out there, but you’ll never find them … now turn it around. People buy from people selling in their own language.

Of course, it’s not cheap to have a multilingual website. And when I say a multilingual website, I’m calling it that advisedly. A copy of your website in another language is a whole different ball game. Make a Chinese website and publish it and the Chinese world may well beat a path to your door. However, wait until you add a new product range, need to restructure a section or simply want to add new content. You’ll need to do it once, twice, three times – once for every language edition you have. You have multiple websites to maintain instead of a single one with language overlays – why is this approach better?

Your content is always published in a base language – usually English – that forms the foundation of the website. For any given section of the website, overlay a translation and the English will disappear when you have chosen the alternate language. If you add new content and have not added a translation layer, then the English version shines through. Therefore your website is always complete with content, never has multiple varying structures and appears consistent to the user, to the extent that you can change language at any point in the website and the page will remain the same, just presented with the new language.

And of course, a multilingual website shows your customers and prospects that you are thinking about their needs. If they feel that you care about them they are more likely to trust you and therefore to buy from you. People rarely buy online, for example, from a store which is presented in a language they do not understand – and if you think about the reasons for this, it becomes obvious why you need a multilingual site.

If you want an edge over your competitors, if you want to have clients overseas who trust you, if you want to show the world how international you actually are, then you really need to go multilingual.

Nick Evans from ExtraMile

The content of this article formed the basis for a lecture given at Staffordshire University for North Staffordshire Chamber’s Staffordshire e-commerce expo during July 2014.