A Basic Guide to Designing a Multilingual Website

The ‘look and feel‘ of a website forms the foundation of any successful online presence. As soon as you make your website live on the internet, it becomes accessible globally. This universal reach is exactly why you should meticulously plan the design of your website if you aim to appeal to an international audience.

Whether your goal is to generate significant revenue or to establish a robust international community, it’s crucial to consider several design elements from the outset. These elements will ensure your website is versatile and can be easily adapted to meet various international standards. Creating foreign-language versions of your site involves more than simple translation; proper localization is necessary before your launch, and early planning can significantly simplify this process.


If you’re more focused on the visual and interactive aspects of web development rather than the technical backend, it’s vital to understand this fundamental principle: computers process numbers, not letters.

Characters on screens are represented by numbers assigned through specific encoding systems. Historically, numerous encoding systems were developed to cover different languages. However, the introduction of Unicode revolutionized this by providing a unique number for every character, independent of the platform, software, or language, simplifying text representation significantly.

Unicode has been embraced by major corporations like Apple, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems. It is compatible with most operating systems and web browsers, marking it as a cornerstone in modern global software development.


Software such as Dreamweaver and, for those just starting out, Microsoft Front Page, support the creation of web pages encoded in Unicode, making them ideal for international use.

Currently, Unicode can represent over 90 different scripts and includes more than 100,000 symbols. UTF-8, a popular Unicode encoding, is variable-length and can encode all possible characters. This feature is particularly useful for international websites, as it accommodates characters from multiple languages, such as the German ‘Eszett’ (ß) and the Umlaut marks (ä, ö, ü).

Ultimately, using Unicode is essential when designing a website that needs to support multiple languages.

Color Symbolism

Color plays a crucial role on any website. The colors you choose largely depend on the products or services you offer. For instance, an environmental firm might favor green, while a water sports retailer might prefer shades of blue.

It’s essential to tailor your color choices to both your brand and your intended audience. For example, in Western cultures, red often represents ‘danger,’ ‘love,’ or ‘passion.’ In contrast, in India, red stands for ‘purity,’ and in China, it symbolizes ‘good luck’ or ‘celebration.’

In Northern Ireland, orange might be associated with Protestant religious symbols, but in the United States, it typically evokes thoughts of ‘autumn,’ ‘Halloween,’ and ‘creativity.’

While green universally suggests ‘spring,’ ‘nature,’ and environmental themes, in China, a green hat indicates that a man’s wife has been unfaithful, and it could also mean an exorcism.

colors in website

Other notable associations include purple, which implies ‘royalty’ in the West and ‘mourning’ in Thailand. Interestingly, black commonly denotes ‘funerals’ or ‘death’ in Western societies, whereas white is used for similar purposes in many Eastern cultures.

To prevent the need for significant changes when entering new markets, choose your website’s color scheme carefully from the beginning.


The design might attract visitors, but content keeps them there. The saying ‘content is king‘ really does hold true, especially when it comes to engaging both domestic and international audiences with valuable and relevant material.

Preparing your content for global markets involves two major processes: localization and optimization.


Effective localization goes beyond simple translation; it requires engaging native speakers who are not only fluent but also culturally knowledgeable about each target market. If your goal is to truly resonate with international audiences, consider regional dialects as well.

website language

For instance, the word for ‘lunch’ varies significantly across French-speaking regions: it’s déjeuner in France but dîner in Switzerland and Belgium, where dîner refers to ‘dinner’ in France. Similarly, coche means ‘car’ in Spain but refers to a ‘baby-stroller’ in many South American countries, which contrasts with the British ‘pushchair’ or ‘buggy.’

This illustrates why treating each market as unique is crucial for global success. Additionally, minimizing use of Flash content enhances translatability and SEO, as search engines struggle to detect text within Flash files, making such sites less visible online.


When optimizing for international audiences, direct translation of keywords and phrases from your English content won’t suffice due to regional variations in search behavior. Local expressions, acronyms, and synonyms might differ significantly, necessitating thorough local market research to determine appropriate search terms.

These localized terms should then be integrated into your site’s content, ideally hosted on a country-specific domain to maximize local search engine visibility and relevance.


While using a single domain for multiple target countries may seem economical and convenient, from a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) standpoint, having a dedicated top-level domain (TLD) for each country offers significant advantages.

For instance, using .co.uk for the United Kingdom or .ch for Switzerland helps search engines recognize the website’s geographical target through ‘geo-targeting,’ which improves your visibility on country-specific search engines like Google.co.uk or Google.fr.

country domain map

It is also advisable to host each domain on a server located within the target country. This localization helps search engines determine the website’s physical presence, further boosting SEO effectiveness.

The choice of words in your domain name also impacts SEO; for example, including ‘software’ in the URL benefits a software company. However, these keywords should be translated into the respective languages of your target markets to enhance local relevance.

Managing a multilingual website under a single domain requires careful structuring. Consider using separate sub-domains for each language version of your website. For example, if your main site is hosted at http://www.mycompany.com, the German version could be http://de.mycompany.com, while the dedicated German domain would be http://www.mycompany.de.

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Effective navigation is fundamental in web design. Ensuring consistency and clear ‘landmarking’ are key to helping users seamlessly explore your site. Navigation structures should be intuitive and accommodate the natural reading flow of the user’s language.

For languages that read right-to-left (RTL), like Arabic, consider adapting the layout to match this orientation. While not mandatory, aligning your navigation to suit the reading habits of your audience can enhance usability. For instance, moving a left-hand vertical menu to the right side for RTL languages can make navigation more natural. Alternatively, a horizontal menu can serve all languages without need for adjustment.

website navigation

Another useful feature is an ‘entrance page’ that allows users to select their preferred language before proceeding. This can be particularly effective if English is the default language; providing clear options to switch languages ensures all users feel welcomed and catered to.

Some sites implement IP2Country technology to automatically suggest a language based on the visitor’s IP address. While this can streamline the process, its accuracy isn’t guaranteed, making it advisable to allow users to choose their language manually to avoid potential confusion.

These strategies are just the beginning in crafting a multilingual website that is accessible and user-friendly. Good luck with your global outreach efforts!