Building a Multilingual Website? These are the Questions to Ask.

Building a Multilingual Website? These are the Questions to Ask.

When you're embarking on your first Multilingual website it can be difficult to figure out the best approach to take. Floris runs through your options and looks at some questions that you can ask.

Throughout the years I have created several multilingual websites using WordPress, and I have tried different methods to achieve my goals. As you might know, WordPress does not offer a simple solution for creating multilingual websites. Yet since you can create virtually everything using WordPress, just a little effort is needed to achieve your goals. There are several ways to create a multilingual website. They can be divided into three groups;

  • Using a plugin in a standalone WordPress environment.
  • Using a WordPress multisite environment.
  • Using both (multisite & network plugins).

In practice I apply all three groups for different projects. And the reason behind each choice is not obvious. It all comes down to the project and the specific needs your client has.

In this article I would like to guide you through my decision making process when a client requests a multilingual website. This process is basically driven by a short list of questions. But let me first elaborate on the different option groups to choose from.

Using a plugin in a standalone WordPress environment

There are several plugins you can use to manage multilingual content in a standalone WordPress environment. A lot has already been written about these kinds of plugins. Please check out articles on Narga and Webdesignboot , and the discussion on Quora. After having read these or other articles on the web you might have noticed that two plugins appear over and over again: WordPress Multilingual (WPML) and qTranslate. To the best of my knowledge, experience and from what I have learned from WordPress community these two really provide a complete solution for single WordPress environments.

I personally would recommend using WPML because it provides more options and is compatible with plugins like W3 Total Cache and WooCommerce. On the down side, if you uninstall the WPML plugin, you can be left with a considerable amount of unused data. Also WPML uses a lot of (inefficient) database queries, though this problem may be solved in the near future. I once created a protoype website using WPML for one of my clients. This site featured about one hundred categories for the purpose of testing. The client imported about thirty thousand categories into it! That is OK for WordPress but causes problems when WPML is installed. The page loading time increased from a mere 2.5 seconds to over 3 minutes.

qTranslate, on the other hand, creates a lot more database pollution. That is because qTranslate stores all languages in one post, whereas WPML generates a new post for each language. If you uninstall qTranslate you will be left with ‘broken’ posts.

If you want to learn more about the pros and cons of WPML versus qTranslate, you should read WP Mayorís article on this subject.

Instead of maintaining the multilingual content yourself, there are also plugins that provide an online translating service such as Transposh WordPress Translation. I personally believe that online translators might be of use for translating words within a certain context or even small sentences, but definitely not for whole paragraphs or chapters. This is however a very easy and cost effective implementation.

Pros

Cons

Only one admin area and one media library Loss of performance, in some paradigms you could be facing a major loss!
Side by side editing so management is centralized Database garbaging
Your data model is changed, sometimes significantly

Using a WordPress multisite environment

After the release of WP 3.0 it became very simple to run WordPress as a network, enabling you to run multiple instances on just one code base. In a WordPress network you can create multiple sites, each having their own admin area, theme, plugins, settings and so on, just like they were all standalone WordPress installs. You can use each site for a certain language, the major benefit is the ability to use WordPress in a native fashion but still being able to separate your multilingual contents individually.

Pros

Cons

Uses WP core functionality, so itís safe and performance is at its best Entities such as posts, pages and taxonomies) from site A cannot be linked to entities in site B
You can use separate domains, like a .com or .eu There are multiple sites, and there are multiple admin areas and also multiple media libraries
Your data model is not changed

Using both

When using both, you choose a WP multisite environment as basic configuration and complement this installation with a (network) plugin. Your main goal is to be able to uphold the benefits a multisite install offers while the drawbacks are eliminated through the use of a plugin. Some plugins come at hand here, like – Multilingual Press, Bilingual Linker and Multisite Language switcher.

Bilingual Linker and Multisite Language switcher enable you to interlink your WordPress entities. This interlinking proves to be of huge benefit for most of my clients. Multilingual Press is a recent newcomer to this field, but does offer a lot of benefits. Not only does it offer interlinking but the Pro version also offers the ability to use just one media library instead of multiple, which you would expect to have in a multisite environment. Again a huge advantage, indeed.

Pros

Cons

Uses WP core functionality, so itís safe and performance is at its best There are multiple admin areas
You can use separate domains, like a .com or .eu

Every project is different

Now you are probably thinking: “So using multisite with a network plugin is the best way, is it not?”

That might be the case, and it is the best approach in most cases. However, there are more aspects to consider. Therefore I ask myself the following questions before I choose which way to go:

  1. Is there any budget available for supplying multilingual content?
    • No: let your visitors use a browser like Chrome which can translate the content of web pages for you. Or use a online translator plugin, like Transposh WordPress Translation
    • Yes, but low: qTranslate is free and installation is easy, but really you should try to get some more budgetÖ (I strongly advice against using this plugin)
    • Yes, I got some time and money to spend: you can buy the WPML plugin or go and spend some time creating a proper multisite environment.
  2. How large will the website become in terms of number of posts and taxonomies?
    • Small site: use WPML!
    • Medium site: better safe than sorry, go multisite!
    • Large site: multisite, definitely!
  3. Is performance a major consideration for this project?
    • No: you can go ahead and use WPML
    • Yes: go multisite and keep the number of plugins you use at the low end.
  4. Does each entity such as a post, page or taxonomy always have a translation and do they need to be linked to each other?
    • Yes: Use WPML in a single environment, and an additional plugin in a multisite environment.
    • No: go multisite
  5. Do you hate to upload each image more then once?
    • Yes: you need a single WordPress environment or you need to use the ‘Pro’ version of the Multilingual Press plugin in a multisite environment. Update: the ‘Pro’ version no longer features a shared media library :-(
    • No: simple multisite is good for you
  6. Does Search Engine Optimization (SEO) plays an important role in your project?
    • Yes: automated translation is not a good choice then; go for a plugin like WPML or multisite.
    • No: you can do whatever you want then.
  7. Will it be likely that a certain language will be dropped in the future?
    • No: you could go WPML
    • Yes: a multisite environment will allow a certain language to be dropped easier

Make your own choice

You have seen that there are different ways to go when you are starting to build a Multilingual WordPress website. I hope my shortlist of questions will help you in your process.

Illustration by Sjors Trimbach

Comments

  1. says

    Great write up of the possibilities out there. I’ve gone the WordPress Multi-site route the last 6 times I’ve built a multi-lingual site and would not have it any other way.

  2. says

    Living in Montreal Canada, to have a bilingual website is essential. I am new to WordPress and I found your information of extreme value for my future. I do not know how to thank you enough.

  3. Caldwell says

    What would you define as a small, medium or large site?
    I’m building a site with opting between language as central to its function…lots of pictures and text, with archive content dating back to 2001. Mostly short write-ups. Lets say a few thousand items.
    Would you be of the opinion that building a website that is looking for great bilingual functionality, both backend and frontend with a potential to grow content, with SEO needs, is a multisite with a plugin multisite press pro be the way to go over WPML? I keep hearing raving reviews about WPML — so I’m a bit tossed up between these two options. Thanks.

    • says

      Hi Caldwall,

      Sorry for my late response (I’ve been away for a while)
      The performance problems I had with WPML were mostly because 35k+ of taxonomies. So in your case WPML might work fine though.
      Though I definately think that multisite is a the better way than using WPML, since you are using more native WordPress functionality (= stability and performance)

  4. says

    Great article. I’m currently working on a multilingual medium sized website using WPML and battling with performance issues. Wish I’d read this post a couple of months ago. Wasn’t even aware that using a plugin to interlink a multisite install was an option.

    Big thumbs up!

    • says

      Amazing article Floris!!!

      Thank you sooooo much! I have a medium site with potential to grow even more using the WPML. I have the same problem like Jens. MY performance is sooooo bad I’m even not able to access the admin panel normally. Everything is soo slow and buggy. In addition the new updates are crashing the hole multilingual sites. So annoying. And now I’m in trouble because I don’t know how to uninstall the hole 12341235 WPML plugins properly so that I can end up with clear DB and WP core.
      I cursed myself that I didn’t read this before! This would saved me a lot of time!

      Thank you Floris ones again.

      Cheers,
      Slavi

  5. says

    Same here… thanks a lot! This helped me clarifying which way to go as I had read of each possibility but not in a case by case basis as you exposed. So this have been very very helpful, thank you.

    I am going the multisite route as I don’t need interlinking or nothing of that sort. I do however need the users to be able to comment and interact in each site (just 2 for the moment) without problem: same user base, same permissions in all sites. Any hints on managing that?

    Thanks again!

  6. says

    I´m in Mallorca and most of the sites we build here are at least 3 languages, as a WPML fan I think they have to make it better, it does crazy things some times. A WPMS for some clients are a nightmare, for next proyects I give a try to Multilingual Press, thanx for the tip :)

    Other case are slugs for CPTs, they have to change and there WPML create a good new option for that.

    I will add to take care of the design, ie. the words in german are much longer than spanish, this affect the menu, titles, and headers, even widget titles. Also if you choose to use some Typekit, Google Fonts or @font-face consider the accents, some Fonts doesn´t have and it happends look cool in english, no accents, but then in other languages as spanish (we have the ñ), french or german you need those extra letters.

  7. says

    Hi there! I just wanted to let you know that the developers of the Multilingual Press Pro plugin decided NOT to include the shared media library functionality. I chose that paid plugin for that reason only and then discovered the shared media library is not included.

    The plugin page on the wordpress site for the free version of Multilingual Press still says (as of August 1st 2013) that the shared media library is a feature available in the upgrade. It’s NOT true sadly. The developers suggested to check out a plugin called “Network Shared Media” instead for a shared media library.

    In conclusion, the Multisite Language Switcher plugin combined with the Network Shared Media plugin is a FREE option that will accomplish what the $75 Multilingual Press Pro plugin promises but fails to deliver.

      • says

        Good article. You should update this text regarding Multilingual Press Pro: “the Pro version also offers the ability to use just one media library”

    • says

      Do you hate to upload each image more then once?
      Yes: you need a single WordPress environment or you need to use the ‘Pro’ version of the Multilingual Press plugin in a multisite environment.

      Would it be possible for the post to be updated regarding the no longer existent feature of a shared media library in Multilingual Press?
      We’ve recently had a disappointed customer in our support forums referencing this article (and presumably the quote above) as the source for their decisions to buy a pro license. While it clearly is the reader’s responsibility to be well informed and up to date with information, a disclaimer in the actual post would do us a great favor in keeping our users (and your readers) happy.

      Multilingual Press still—and even more—is a great and ever maturing solution for content in multiple languages and we appreciate it has been featured in this in-depth review.

      Thanks,
      Caspar Hübinger
      MarketPress Head of Support

  8. says

    Also, thanks for the GREAT article. I was struggling with WPML as it was causing conflicts with the plugins I wanted to use. I didn’t know about the multisite option for multilingual sites until I found this article. You’re a lifesaver!

  9. Majed says

    I have been hunting for a solution for long-time now… Actually I need to translate the front end layout static information… Like menu.. Sidebar headings only… Not the whole content.

    It doesn’t matter if the content is in different languages…

    So the purpose of making the site multilingual is to make the user able to navigate through the website. Because my visitors are mostly will be browsing images rather than content

    I thought I would use a trick to switch between the. Mo files to show the right wording in each language… And to make the user switch between the languages as he/she preferred.

    Is there any safe way to do that? Without adding more clutter to the database?

    Any suggestion will be helpful

  10. Moses says

    Thanks for the post!

    I1m planing a multilingual and multi-vendor commerce site.

    1. i want vendors to be able to set a mini store and sell their items with the option to describe their products in a few languages.

    2. I want visitors from different countries to land on the version of the site in their languages.

    3. i need the site to be rtl and ltr friendly since Hebrew will be one of the languages.

    I’m checking out Multilingual Press plug in …do you think this could be a solution for at list the languages flexibility I’m looking for ?

    What do you think would be the best way to approach it ?

    Remember – I need a shopping cart environment, a network environment and multilingual with rtl ltr possibility

  11. says

    Quite a nice blog. You should also include one situation where the template/theme is in the consideration. You have a free or premium theme (for example from themeforest):
    A) If it is 100% WPML ready and tested, use it. Many authors claim WPML readiness, but often it is no the case.
    B) It it has custom functions, plugins or it is not really intended for multilingual use, go multisite.

  12. says

    Seem to have lost my reply (hard to work with a cat sleeping on my delete key…

    Did not see a mention of Polylang which seems to have high ratings do everything and not require multisite.
    Wanted your opinion on it.

    http://wordpress.org/plugins/polylang/ (downloaded 258,664 times with a 5 star rating.
    Please tell me what I am missing – have been angsting over pricing and reading all links that you have added – and as I am not a coder – generally going crazy over my need for a 3 language site.

    Thoughts please!

  13. Joy says

    Thanks so much for this detailed comparision!

    Does that mean if I use multisite my website will benefit from all visits to different language sites?

  14. Bryan says

    What i have not been able to discern from the material i have read is: in a multsite environment can you set all sites in your network to MIRROR any formatting changes you make on the main site eg navigation, widgets, general layout changes. I ask because lets say you have 10 sites ach for a language it would be purely exhausting to have to replicate changes on all 10 sites!

    Have i missed something?

  15. says

    Very helpful post. What is your preferred plugin : Multisite Language Switcher or Multilingual Press (Pro). Thank you for clearing this out.

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