Should we translate our school website into other languages?
Posted by Richard Bradford
08th February 2017
To translate or not to translate your international school website into other languages is a fine dilemma.
If you are delivering education to an international market, there is a good argument for translating your website into any number of those languages spoken by the majority of your student population.
I can think of at least three good reasons for translating your school website:
1) To enhance the user experience for potential new international students
2) To improve your search engine positioning on overseas websites
3) To show your commitment to internationalism and to reach out culturally
So why is it so few schools ever achieve website translation nirvana, and what happens if you only make it part way?
At a conference of international education providers in London last week, I brought up the elephant in the room of website content planning: whether to translate the content into other languages. The room was divided roughly 50:50 between those who believed in doing it, and those who either didn’t or couldn’t see a viable way of doing so. My response was simple, if a little rude: half-arsed translation doesn’t cut it.
So let’s look at some of the options adopted by those training and education providers whose market may lie partly or entirely overseas.
Translating your home page or providing a special translated landing page
The education industry in general tends to be very sensitive and supportive of world cultures and mindsets and knows that a rich cultural mix can bring much to the conversation. Some schools, such as private language schools and colleges are almost entirely reliant on international students.
That tends to mean that these same schools, colleges and universities are very good at doing just that – welcoming people. What better approach then than to translate your home page into another language or even many languages? Some go one step further and will have a specially constructed ‘landing page’ on the site in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, you name it… This one landing page tends to provide a one-page, text heavy summary of the entire site and probably extends a welcome specifically to a given nation of people.
On the surface, that sounds like a kind, caring thing to do, but then again, it feels a bit patronising too. The moment you click away from this page, that warmth is replaced by the cold reality that this particular school hasn’t been bothered enough to translate the entire site for you. In fact, it’s now starting to look like a bit of a hollow gesture.
If the reason that a school decided to translate this landing page into another language was to at least let people know everything that was on offer, then well, I guess that’s an objective, but at the same time, it seems unlikely that they’re going to get anywhere near booking and paying for anything.
Does having a few pages translated help with overseas SEO (Search engine optimisation)?
In short, no. Unless your educational offering is so unique that you’re one of the few suppliers worldwide, it’s highly unlikely that your one or two pages of translated content will ever make it as far as an overseas search engine, such as Google.it or Google.fr.
The fact is that overseas, whilst there may be relatively few of your competitors featuring either, the market will be dominated by educational tour operators (agents, essentially) whose job it is to compete in that local market space. Competition is ferocious, and the agencies which do well are those with complex and established websites, with acres of content in the local language, all talking about the education programmes on offer.
So an agent which promotes maybe 100 language schools in the UK and US, for example, will have significantly more content than you’ll be able to muster in that language.
THAT SAID, it’s also true that many agencies will be making the mistake of copy-pasting content from schools’ own sites, and duplicated content can be a BIG, BIG issue which Google penalises by effectively blocking websites and banishing them from search results. Not something you want to risk.
A good option is to ensure you rank well on Google.com which is taken by many as being the search engine to use when you’re looking for ‘international results’ which will appear in English. For example, a user based in Russia who is looking to bypass the sea of local agents vying for her business and instead find out the most popular English language schools in England might well decide to jump on Google.com and enter her search term there.
If you really do want to start ranking highly on Google overseas for searches in the local language, it will be important to develop a full content multilingual SEO strategy in that language. That means not only translating your full site, but also making an effort to author or translate key blog articles into that language too. That may sound costly, but may be no more so than embarking on costly sales and marketing trips overseas.
If you’re translating the whole site, don’t forget the checkout
So you’ve decided to translate everything you can think of. This is great, and shows a total and utter commitment to potential students. If all has gone well, the student selects a programme and hits BOOK NOW! Unfortunately, what often happens is that at this point your regular site hands over to a payment engine, your customer relationship management system, or possibly your accounting software where the content just can’t be translated.
Right at the most critical point in the process, where the terms and conditions and important financial information is to be found, the client is left high and dry. It doesn’t always happen of course, but this is the hardest part of the process to work through.
If you’re redeveloping your current site, and you really want to include full translation of absolutely everything, try and build this into your specification for your developers from the outset, and STICK TO YOUR GUNS!
Do you have the language resources to field a call or an email enquiry in this language?
The website is clearly only part of the puzzle. All your website is really ever trying to do is to replace the real-life conversation which could be taking place between you and your potential student. This begs the question “Could a real conversation take place in this language?” If you don’t have the support team behind the scenes to field questions in that language, when you’ve gone to so much trouble elsewhere, it might appear pretty rude to reply to local language emails by totally blanking their language choice and just replying in English!
If you’re going to translate the site and have it in different languages and your hard work generates an enquiry in that language, it’s great therefore to ensure you have the staff on hand to support students before they arrive and after they get there.
A special word for international schools including language schools
There is possibly an added pressure on language schools, because by their very nature they’re involved with language acquisition. If that’s your situation, there’s a risk that you look quite imperious if you can’t be bothered to translate. However, all the rest of this article applies. Maybe you can get round this by ensuring the language you use on your site is really clear. Usually reserved for sites serving people based in the UK, the Crystal Mark is an interesting standard created by the Plain English campaign, and could be a useful alternative to translation.
That said, if you serve international students, there is also a great opportunity to exchange English lessons, excursions, social activities and other perks in return for their translation skills. The quality of translation you get might vary substantially from person to person, especially if they’re not trained translators, but there is a cost-benefit calculation to be made in getting your entire site translated.
What about Google Translate?
Some schools choose to install Google Translate on their own site as a courtesy to users. That’s a nice thing to do, and is both a positive gesture with few negative drawbacks.
Google Translate is getting better all the time (and you can even help it improve). Even though it’s not perfect, the good thing is that when people use it, they know it’s Google translating, not you.
Even if you don’t add the option to your site, overseas users will usually be asked if they want Google to translate the site, but this may depend on their local settings. So with Google taking the blame for any poor or amusing translation, users are unlikely to blame you for it. They’re going to assume that your site in English is quite coherent!
Richard Bradford was speaking at English UK Marketing Conference in London. If you’re interested in Richard speaking at your event, please visit the Keynotes, Plenaries and Workshops page or alternatively, contact us.
Image copyright: chris2766 / 123RF Stock Photo