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 Mayor’s 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.
|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.
|Uses WP core functionality, so it’s 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|
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.
|Uses WP core functionality, so it’s 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:
- 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 budget… (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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- No: simple multisite is good for you
- 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.
- 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