I got the other day a request to quote for the translation of a small website. In this particular case, it was not an agency but rather an end customer, who had found me by means of an Internet search. The difference is important: The interaction with the end customer allows you often to offer services that a translation agency does not care about, and often does not even understand.

In this particular case, I actually ended up doing something crazy: I actually recommended my customer NOT to translate his site. Yes, it has cost me money, but there is a catch: Apart from the fact that in this business you should have some professional ethics and not sell something that has no added value, I have found that this kind of recommendation is usually good publicity: When you prevent somebody from throwing away his money, especially when you could have milked him, people are usually grateful and pleasantly surprised. Very often, this “lost” customer will widely disseminate his experience, together with his praise and enthusiastic recommendation. And the goodwill and reputation that you gain from such honesty is very difficult to obtain in traditional ways. “Word of mouth” is always the best publicity.

So why did I recommend him not to translate his site? Very simple: Because he failed to pass any of the three rules that form the litmus test of whether a site should be translated or not. Any of those rules would be already a strong argument against such translation, but failing the three of them is like throwing away the money.

1) Assess The Target Market Of Your Website

It is ridiculous to try to translate a site if the market that the site targets does not support such translation. For example, a website that addresses a local market does not need to be translated unless multiple languages co-exist in that particular market. Thus, a site promoting local services in a German city should not bother with translation until they had expanded at national level and were ready to expand internationally. On the other hand, a site targeting a city like Brussels should seriously consider translation because the country is bilingual –French and Flemish– but also because the city has a strong presence of EU officials, so translation at least into English could also target these people. But even a site targeting a whole country should not consider translation unless it seriously considers internationalization of its services.

2) Have A Look At The Site Traffic

Site traffic is an interesting indicator for several reasons. The first one is obvious: If site traffic is low, translation will not help you to increase it. Believe me, it will not. The problem is that your site is not sufficiently attractive, and translation will not improve that aspect. I strongly recommend investing first in driving up your traffic before trying to translate your site, the money and effort is better spent.

The traffic also points out which language could be a candidate for translation: If you are ready for internationalization, and get a lot of visits from a certain country, then the native language of that country might be a good candidate. This is particularly true if the website is not in English –if somebody is interested enough to visit you, even if he only understands half of what you say, they you have made already half of the sales. If you sell it in his language, sales should obviously increase, as you will attract more people from that country.

If the visitor landscape is not clear, then try aggregating the languages. You might find for example that while you get many visitors from France but few from Spain, when you sum up the visitors from Spanish-speaking countries you might have a much higher volume. Do not consider only the “official” language. One of my customers, with a Spanish-only site, gets half of her traffic from the US! (In her case, translation is irrelevant because she only provides local services in Spain).

3) Evaluate The Return On Investment (ROI) Of Your Site Translation

Ultimately, the decision to translate or not is usually a decision about money – localization of your site ultimately only makes sense if the number of visitors (and your potential customers) increases. And here we have ultimately the big question that accompanies every business decision: If I invest (in the translation and associated SEO) will I earn more than what I spend?

It exceeds the scope of this article to discuss financial aspects such as the calculation of the return on investment or net present value. But a quick-and-dirty calculation will do: How many additional users to you expect to gain by localizing your site? (Try to be conservative or at least realistic). Now, imagining a conversion rate similar to your existing site, how much money will those users mean to you? And what percentage of that income would be your net earnings? If the cost of the translation is greater than or even similar to your expected net earnings in one year, then you have a lousy business case and should forget about localization. If your expected net earnings are several times the cost of such translation and associated work, then you are already losing money, so do not waste any more time.

It could be pointed out that the two first rules are in reality a subset of the third one. Ultimately, money is the key driver. But the first two rules force you to apply first some common sense. It is too easy to get away and dream about hundreds of thousands of visitors provided you localize everything. Some unscrupulous consultants and agencies even push you in that direction. But if you cannot pass the first two rules, don’t even bother with the third one. Your money is better spent elsewhere. But, if you insist on spending it this way, please contact me… ;)

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