The internet is the glue that binds the entire world, allowing disparate cultures to use the same services and experience the same things. At this point, there’s something faintly odd about a company — at least, one that doesn’t have an explicitly-local identity — failing to take overseas prospects into account. If you’re selling products, there’s interest throughout the world, and you have access to flexible shipping services, what reason is there not to expand your scope?
Those who form the desire to start targeting other markets will understandably start conducting online research, and this may well lead them to a couple of terms. One they can easily interpret (“website translation”) and another that seems mildly confusing (“website localization”). Are they ultimately the same thing but in different words? Or is there some other explanation?
If you’re going to adapt your website for fresh audiences, this is something you need to know. To that end, let’s get into the difference between website translation and website localization.
Translation concentrates on embracing new languages
Website translation is fairly simple in principle, involving precisely what you’d expect. If your content is currently only available in English, you’re missing out: there are many millions of people out there who either don’t speak any English or speak enough to understand it when needed but would much rather read content in their native tongues. No matter how many languages you learn, it’s always going to be easiest to use the one you grew up with.
Note that translation isn’t inherently about location (which is just one part of the difference here). Many countries (indeed, many areas) are home to plenty of people who have either immigrated or come from immigrant communities and consequently speak other languages. A business with no aspirations to sell overseas can still see strong value in translating its website.
Additionally, the translation process naturally caters to the nature of the required languages rather than that of other countries. Think about how a foreign site translated into generic English would read as grammatically correct but be rather stilted and absent of cultural references (including slang terms) that might allow it to feel more natural.
Localization involves generally adapting to a new region
Website localization, on the other hand, is about adjusting a website to function well in a new regional market. When you aim to sell in another region, particularly another country, there are many things you need to take into account. Language is the first, and typically the biggest, so translation is essential — but the quality of the translation needs to be extremely high, going beyond adequacy to reach a native-language standard for each target area.
That task alone can sound exhausting, understandably. Those willing to accept generic translation can easily lean on services like Google Translate, yet that isn’t a realistic option when you’re trying to impress. It’s still perfectly possible to take advantage of modern translation automation, of course (Weglot is a localization solution that starts with automation and refines the output through manual effort), but you need to pay close attention to the final product.
And then there’s the subsequent process of updating the site design to suit the new audience. Consider that people who primarily speak languages that have traditionally been formatted right-to-left might respond better to centralized website designs than those left-leaning. And what about your color palette? A given color will mean different things in different areas.
You certainly don’t want to alienate someone because you picked the wrong decorative element. And yes, it’s important to stick to your general branding (if you’re not already operating from a comprehensive brand style guide, you’re missing a trick), but there’s a reason why big brands have numerous viable palettes they can swap between. It isn’t just for the sake of variety. It’s also to help their content work in many scenarios.
In the end, though, this is all worth doing. Creating a foreign website version that truly caters to the intended audience — getting the language right, nailing the design, using appropriate images, being correctly placed in search rankings, playing to cultural preferences — can be highly lucrative for an ecommerce business with the systems in place to ship internationally.
If you want to succeed, you can’t stop at translation
Not everyone who wants to go multilingual with their business needs to invest in localization. It can be a costly process, after all, and you might not be that committed. Regardless, you can’t simply stop at translation. A key aspect of the localization process is SEO: using elements like hreflang tags to ensure that web page variants don’t compete for traffic, instead battling for ranking places in the relevant foreign-language Google SERPs.
If you simply translate your website and stop there, allowing visitors to select their required languages, you’ll improve your website metrics but you might not make any progress in organic search. In short, whatever you’re looking to achieve, simply translating all the content on your website won’t be enough. You need to go beyond that to achieve your overarching goals.