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English Internationalization Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout

Internationalization‘ vs. ‘multilingual’?

“International” and “multilingual” are two words that are sometimes used interchangeably, but may have other meanings when they relate to websites. It is important to make distinctions between these two concepts. Learning about the differences can help in more accurate planning and a clearer definition of the requirements for a site. There are very specific requirements on the design, development and deployment, and these requirements could call for different technical solutions.

Put simply, an International website is intended for an international audience, and “multilingual” refers to a site that uses more than one language. An international website can be multilingual and a multilingual website can be internationalized, or not. For example, the W3C site is an international site is intended for an international audience. While this site is basic English language, it contains pages that are in other languages, so it can be considered a multilingual site.

Many of the companies websites are international in nature. As for international audiences, they often require the user to select a regional site. Such regional sites tend to be written in one language (usually the common language for the majority of the expected audience). The regional selection might direct the user to a site sub domain of the mother, or it might direct to a website in another country. Regardless of the method, a good consistent design will make the user feel as if the same site, and the feeling of an international site.

Multilingual sites can exist in many forms. A site might offer language selection and then present the content in only one language at a time. A multilingual site might also contain multiple languages on the same page, either because the audience can be multilingual, or if desired embedded foreign text. An online foreign dictionary is a common example of such a site.

Understanding the international and multilingual requirements for a site will help to determine and define site structure, hardware and software requirements, the structure and markup content, and provide valuable information for designers when creating scenarios in presentation. Site navigation is also dependent on these requirements. International sites allows the user to navigate through country / region selections plus language, and multilingual sites may just involve language selection. Reviewing these requirements of international and multilingual sites can then be a greater challenge than setting them at first.

A multilingual site has to deal with other stuff also than just the language. Regional and cultural specifics must be taken into account in how information is displayed. Some cultures use a comma to separate thousands in numbers and decimal point as a separator, while other cultures use of the period and comma point are reversed. For example, 1.547 in one country and 1,547 in another country can be the same number. While the only difference in this example is a single character, the difference in meaning is significant.

The presentation date and time is a typical example of the confusion for the user. When using two characters to represent year, month and day, date might not be obvious. Some examples from different cultures include DD / MM / YY, MM / DD / YY, and YY / MM / DD. A single date in the format “01/02/03” could be interpreted as three different dates.

You should watch this video to learn more about various aspects and issues with internationalization and SEO.

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