It’s so confusing to understand how to build a multilingual site using WordPress. That seemed odd to me, given that building a site with WordPress is so simple.
The reason for this difficulty is that WordPress was originally developed as a blogging tool, and not as a complete CMS solution. This is why it does not support multi language out of the box. There are tools you can use, built by the WP community, that makes WordPress work in two or more languages.
The fact is that most businesses, especially ones outside the US, needs their site to include at least two languages. According to WordPress.com stats, 29% of their content is written in languages other than English.
When site owners want to expand their business, so it can target different countries, audiences and languages, they find that there are 3 main solutions to choose from.
Here are the options:
- Building one website and making it multilingual using a plugin like WPML / Polylang. This is the most common solution and is also the most recommended for most types of sites.
- Creating a WordPress Multisite. As we will see, you need to think really hard if Multisite is the right solution, because once you choose to use it, it’s a real hassle to migrate to other solutions.
- Build different WordPress installations for each language. This is not really a solution I would recommend, but some people still use it, so I decided to put it on the list.
How do you decide between these options? Choosing the wrong one can cause your site to run slow, can jeopardize your users privacy or cause many other serious problems that can influence the whole business operation. As if that’s not enough, switching and migrating to a different solution can be a very expensive and complicated task, that can involve weeks and even months of programming.
That’s why I wanted to create this ultimate dummies guide (not for dummies only!) that will paint a complete picture as to how to choose the best solution to setup a multilingual WordPress site for different business needs.
I’ll first explain about the solutions, and then about how to go about choosing one of them over the other.
Create A Multilingual WordPress By Using A Plugin
There are two popular multilingual plugins that I have tried to use myself and know firsthand about their value. One is WPML, which is a paid plugin. the other is Polylang, which is free.
Basically, both WPML and Polylang work similarly: They take the original post, let’s say the English one, and they create a duplicate post version of it, that will contain the manual translation of the original post. The translated post is considered a translation by a connection made by the plugin.
WPML is a very popular multilingual plugin that has been around since 2007. According to their stats, there are over 400K websites running WPML.
With WPML, you use the regular WordPress installation, and the plugin handles all the different translated versions itself. This means that if you create a blog post in English and translate it to Spanish, each of the translations will be saved in the database as separate posts, which are linked through the WPML plugin.
You can use WPML to translate pages, posts, custom post types, taxonomies, custom fields, menus and every element of your theme, plugins, WordPress admin and website.
WPML runs on a single install of WordPress, and can be used to translate over 60 built in languages, as well as any other language you add yourself.
The URL structure for each translated language can be set in various different ways, including separating them through directories, subdomains or separate domains altogether.
This plugin has 3 different pricing plans: For Multilingual Blog costing $29 for the first year, for Multilingual CMS costing $79 for the first year, and a lifetime Multilingual CMS costing $195.
We have previously explained about installing and using the Polylang plugin for multilingual websites.
Polylang works in a similar way as WPML, creating separate posts per language and connecting them through the plugin. It has over 100K installs, and its premium advantage is its ease of use. Polylang lets you translate posts, pages, categories, tags, media, menus, widgets, custom post types, custom taxonomies, sticky posts, post formats, the admin interface and RSS feeds.
It also provides a customizable language switcher as a widget or in the nav menu. it supports RTL languages and allows the url structure to be set for each language via subdomains, subfolders or domain per language.
Multilingual WordPress On Multisite
Building a Multisite WordPress is another way of creating a multilingual website. By using Multisite you have one WordPress installation and several sites. Each site is a different language.
What Is A WordPress Multisite?
I like Brian Casel’s explanation:
“WordPress Multisite is a special “mode” built into WordPress, which allows you to create a network of multiple websites, all running on a single installation of WordPress”.
A great example for a Multisite WordPress is WordPress.com, where you can have different WordPress blogs altogether that share the same database and user base.
Common Multisite examples can also aid in explaining. Here are a few websites that would need Multisite:
- A University wanting to have a different website for each department.
- An online store where the buyers’ profile accounts are available throughout the multiple sites.
- A network of sites that generate revenue with Adsense.
- A Saas type of network.
Create a Multilingual WordPress by Using Multisite (No Plugin Needed)
If you do decide you need a Multisite, then the multilingual solution will be much different than for a regular WordPress.
Multisite has a lot of disadvantages: It’s complex to setup, it can be slow, and it can generate errors with plugins, to name a few.
One big advantage Multisite offers is that you don’t need any plugins, and posts in different languages don’t have to be connected. This makes the solution highly attractive to large corporations, that don’t want to rely on outside plugins for support.
Bare in mind that without using a plugin, your visitors will not be able to easily switch between languages. They won’t be able, for example, to have a flag language switcher and go from the Spanish About page to the English About page with a click of a button. This is because the entities, pages, posts or whatever, are not linked as translations.
I don’t consider this switching between languages a problem for 99% of websites, because most traffic arrives directly to the right language. Think of your own experience, when did you last visit a site with a language you didn’t understand? Even if this occurs, you can easily search for the page again on Google.
If you still want to connect the various pages, I suggest using a translation tool that is meant for Multisite like Multisite Language Switcher. There are two more plugins that have a similar function, and are mentioned in Irena Domingo‘s comprehensive guide on the subject.
How To Choose Between Solutions For Multilingual Sites
There are many sorts of website types, ranging from small sites with a few pages to huge networks that include millions of blogs. Your site lies somewhere in that wide range of website types, and choosing whether to go multilingual with Multisite or plugin can have a huge impact later on for the whole business you run.
In order to cover the widest spectrum of sites, and actually help you get to the right decision, I’d like to depict the most common types of websites, and explain which solution works best for each one.
I’ll start with the most basic site and gradually climb up the complexity level.
1. Multi Languages for a Single Website
The most common website type is what I call the regular content site. This can include a simple business website, a portfolio website or a personal blog.
What characterizes such sites is the fact that they mostly contain text and media. They are not complex sites, and therefore do not involve thinking of issues like user login, ecommerce etc.
Site owners for this type of website are looking for a way to enter a new market, and have various translations available for each of their target audience’s language or location.
Recommended solution: For these types of websites, the answer is the simplest – no Multisite. Just choose from one of the two solutions mentioned earlier: WPML or Polylang.
2. Multi Languages for a Single WooCommerce Store
Ok, now we’re making it more complex, because we are dealing with Woocommerce.
There is a solution for Woocommerce both with Polylang, with this integration, with WPML, as well as with Multisite. The Multisite even doesn’t need any plugin to have it work perfectly, which is a big plus.
The answer to the question which option to choose, has to do with the way the store is maintained.
Try to answer the following questions:
- How many languages are you planning to translate to in the short term of one year?
- How Important is the user’s’ login to view what they bought?
There are a lot of example you can find of complaints of the speed of Woocommerce websites with WPML. Even while considering these issues, I would not recommend using the Multisite solution for a single store. If you are afraid of the speed issues for WPML, consider using different WordPress installations altogether – each of which will be on different languages.
Regarding Polylang – don’t even consider this an option because up to this day it doesn’t work well with Woocommerce.
Recommended solution: Different WordPress installations or WPML (if speed is of no issue).
3. Multi Language for Social Sites
Social sites are characterized by allowing the visitors to post content, have profile pages, participate in discussions and interact with each other.
There are two solutions offered by WordPress for creating social websites: Buddypress, that enables you to build a social network, and bbPress, that enables you to create forums. Both bbPress and Buddypress work with Multisite.
Recommended solution: If you don’t have to, don’t use Multisite. bbPress and Buddypress both work fine with WPML. Unless there is a specific reason for it, don’t use Multisite for this.
If you are planning to build several social media websites or several forums, each one performing as a separate website altogether, then you should use Multisite. An example of this is the wordpress.org forum, which is set up on different subdomains for each language.
4. Multi Language for Magazines
WordPress is great as a magazine platform. You can have multiple level users: writers, editors, proofreaders. Different writers can be assigned different sections of the magazine, and the magazine itself can be easily divided into sections and categories, even within a single page.
Recommended solution: Unless we are dealing with a complicated magazine, one that includes personal blogs, forums and the sorts, I’d recommend using the WPML or Polylang plugins for magazine websites.
5. Multi Languages for Branches
When there are branches involved, it introduces another solution: adding separate WordPress installations for each branch, and placing the multilingual plugin in the foreign branches. The other solution is to use Multisite so as there is one installation of WordPress that includes all branches.
Recommended solution: In this case I would recommend going with Multisite, as it can reduce the hosting costs considerably. Think of various images that could be used throughout the branches. You’ll still be able to set different prices for the same product in different branches. Another cool advantage is that you’ll be able to setup a central area where executives could see stats of all the sales of different branches under one dashboard.
6. Multi Languages for Affiliate Sites
A lot of affiliates need to develop a network of websites, some of which using different languages.
Their needs are usually:
- Create different looking websites fast.
- Manage all websites under one admin, with one see-all dashboard.
- Update quickly.
- Save on resources.
This is a simplification of the needs, but is general enough to be true to most affiliate needs.
Recommended solution: This is a perfect example of when to use Multisite WordPress. If some of these sites you are planning to build also use Adsense, it’s even better, because you’ll be able to easily manage all of them with a single Adsense account.
7. Multi Language for a Network of Small Sites All Run by the Owner (Like Our WordPress theme shop)
You may have a business model that requires you to manage a network of websites that are all built by you.
An example of this kind of website is a WordPress designer or developer that has a site showing all of their plugin and theme demos. This type of website is specifically for businesses in the WordPress development world, that offer themes and plugins and need to create demos that present their offers.
Another example of this site type are SaaS (Software as a Service) websites, where you sell your plugin through a WordPress site. There is a nice post I found that depicts a case study for this kind of website, using a Multisite.
Recommended solution: This type of site seems natural for the Multisite solution. It saves a lot of resources, and you can display your demos in various languages easily. There is a drawback for this if you are creating demos for sites that will later be migrated to another domain, your client’s domain, as it is very difficult to do this kind of migration.
8. Multi Language for Governments, Universities and Schools
What characterizes institutional websites like governments and schools is their hierarchical structure. These websites tend to have departments on different subdomains, as well as different admins. All of these websites, however, are run under in the same principle and processes.
Recommended solution: The description above makes institutional websites ideal candidates for Multisite websites. This means that different language versions will be presented, for example, to different ethnicity students that attend the same department.
9. Multi Language for Blog Networks
Blog networks, like wordpress.com, allow users to create their own user-generated blogs that they control.
Recommended solution: Blog networks allow admins of each blog in the network to control the design, theme and plugin used on their blog, but only with themes and plugins that are installed on the main website. This network can allow for creating different blogs in various languages, without them being connected together to translations. This is why the Multisite is the best option to use.
I really hope this extensive guide will help you choose the right solution for creating your own multilingual WordPress. This is fast becoming the number one problem with WordPress, because anyone that is trying to do online marketing will consider going global and advertising to foreign languages.
I do hope the guys at WordPress will soon develop a solution that will reside inside of the WordPress platform and not rely on outside plugins.
If you are planning a multilingual site and still have hesitations regarding the solution, let me know about it in the comments and I’ll try to help.