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February 13, 2019

How to Build a Multilingual Website? Here Are the First Steps [Complete Guide]

So you want to build a multilingual website in order to reach a larger number of customers. You may be tempted to think, “First things first. I’ll just prepare the English site and then translate it later.”

But that’s the wrong mindset. It’s a mistake that may cost you later on.

The first step of how to build a multilingual website is not to just create the English version. The first thing to do is to plan how you will localize your website into other languages after your English site is live.

So in this article we describe the most important first steps of localization for which you need to plan ahead before you start developing your English language site.

Since it’s a hefty 3,700 word article, we’ll list the main sections here so that you can click to the section you want to read first.

Choose a Global Ready CMS

A CMS (Content Management System) is a system that allows people without web development expertise to manage a website. It allows them to write blogs, add images, edit text, add pages, delete pages, and so on—all without knowing HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL, or any of those other acronyms.

Some examples of common CMSs include WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento, and Shopify

WordPress CMS dashboard

A dashboard of the WordPress CMS

Your company will already have its own criteria that will determine what CMS to choose. If you plan to translate your website, here are a few more criteria to watch out for.

First, Is it able to support different languages? This includes both the aspect of character encoding as well as reversed language direction.

Character encoding is the system that renders characters on your computer screen. If you do not have the right encoding system, the characters will look like little boxes or maybe what my grade school teacher would call, “gobbledygook.”

A multilingual website should almost always be encoded in UTF-8 so that it will display not only in the English, but also French, Greek, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, and so on.

The text to the left is encoded with UTF-8 whereas the text on the left is encoded with ANSI.

The text to the left is encoded with UTF-8 whereas the text on the left is encoded with ANSI.

Regarding reversed language direction, some languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, are written from right to left (RTL) rather than left to right (LTR). If your company is likely to serve customers in the Middle East, it’s vital that your CMS is able to make the switch from LTR to RTL.

Second, is the CMS able to handle multiple versions in different languages? You may decide to host different languages as separate websites altogether or you may decide to have them all hosted on the same domain. (More on that later.) So the question is, will your CMS be able to handle the configuration you choose?

Third, is the CMS able to integrate with your translation company’s translation management system (TMS)?

To ensure that it can, go ahead and speak to a few language service providers (LSP) to get their recommendation of what CMS would work best with their systems. You don’t necessarily need to sign a contract at this stage, but you can certainly get expert advice for free from translation project managers who have overseen numerous projects like yours before.

So in summary, before you start development of your English site, you need to choose a CMS that will support other languages, allow you to have the website structure that you choose, and integrate with your LSP’s tools.

IVANNOVATION is happy to provide website translation consulting for companies with questions about multilingual CMSs.

For more information about connecting a CMS and TMS, see the section below about managing translation projects.

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Design Pages to Look Good in Other Languages

You want your website to look great for every customer, but you may not be able to afford to take the time to redesign the website for every language.

That’s why considering localization is vital during the initial design stage.

There are a few things you should keep in mind when designing the English version to ensure having attractive foreign language versions later.

Text Direction

First, is text direction. As mentioned above, some languages (such as Arabic, Hebrew, Uyghur, Aramaic, Kurdish, Persian, Urdu, Azeri, and Maldivian) are known as RTL languages, written from the right to the left, whereas English and most other languages are known as LTR languages.

An English user experiences your page with the top left as the cornerstone. Think about it; every site you open has the most important information—the name of the company and logo—at the top left. When you open a Google Document, where is the name of the document? That’s right, the top left.

However, a Hebrew user will look on the top right corner of the page to find the most important information. Don’t let it be blank!

That means that your entire website should be flipped around backwards to accommodate RTL languages.

This shows BBC with RTL and LTR format in Persian, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

This shows BBC with RTL and LTR format in Persian, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

When your designers pitch their designs, keep in mind that they will be in reverse for some languages; ask yourself if they will still look good that way.

Also keep in mind that photographs also may need to be replaced so that they still look good on an RTL page. If the English version has a picture of a boy pointing to an object on one side of the page, in the Arabic version he may be pointing off into space.

Test the site with the RTL configuration early on using a pseudo-translation just to make sure that it works.

Language Line Length

Second, remember that different languages take up different amounts of space both horizontally and vertically. Design your webpage so that you can add or subtract the number of characters in each text string and it will still look good.

Two places that are especially prone to problems are buttons and text with icons.

Sometimes a button will have a short text like “Go.” But when the word is translated into a language with a longer word, the word will get cut off in the middle or the button may look awkwardly large.

Regarding icons, sometimes designers are tempted to put several icons across the screen with text below not realizing that when a longer language is substituted, the words will run into each other.

App User Interface Line Length in Chinese and English

On the top is an app screen in the original Chinese; in the English version below, the text length is obviously too long for the design.

To learn more about the lengths of text in different languages, see our article called Varying Line Lengths of Different Languages vs User Interface [Infographic].

Words and Images

Third, if you include words on an image, they will need to be translated as well. But if the word is actually part of the image, it cannot be translated without replacing the entire image.

There are three ways to deal with words and images:

1) Have text in the image

  • Pro: It’s easy to do on the English version.
  • Con: It’s impossible to translate. You have to redo or Photoshop the image for every language. That takes time.
Text in an image cannot be translated

Text in an image cannot be translated. The image can only be replaced.

2)  Make the words as a text layer on the original Photoshop file, translate that layer, and export a version for each language

  • Pro: This is a better solution since the underlying image can be recycled for each language.
  • Con: You must deal with every image file to replace the text layer with a translated text layer. Nevertheless, this is better than having to replace an entire image.

Putting text on one layer means you can keep the underlying image and translate the text layer.

3) Have the text as a text overlay built in the HTML

  • Pro: From a localization perspective, this is the best solution since all of the HTML text is easily imported into the translation tools along with all of the other site’s text. Then it’s exported back to the website. There are no extra steps to the process.
  • Con: It may be be more work initially and it may be less predictable how it will appear on the end user’s screen. Nevertheless, this is the most efficient solution from a localization perspective.
Adding text to an image with HTML

Putting text over images using HTML allows you to export the text to translators along with the website body text.

Our recommendation is:

  • If it’s a picture with words that don’t communicate anything important to your customer, like perhaps words on a boy’s T-shirt, just leave it as it is and don’t translate it.
  • If it has text in very specific locations, such as in a complicated diagram with labels and arrows, add the text in a layer over the image in the Photoshop file.
  • If you have some simple text over an image that you want the customer to read, put the text in HTML.

Discuss this with your translation provider during the design stage so that you can save the most time over the long haul.

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Decide on Your URL Structure

Consider what the URL will look like for the various languages. There are four options that you can choose from. You can choose to organize the languages by subdomains, subdirectories, top level domains, or completely different domains.

Below are examples that show either the English version (EN) or Chinese Simplified version (CN) and have the language indication in red.

  • A subdomain, eg: https://cn.getresponse.com/ vs https://getresponse.com
  • A subdirectory, eg: https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp vs. https://www.bbc.com or https://www.skype.com/zh-Hans/ vs https://www.skype.com
  • A top level domain, eg: http://www.google.cn/ vs. http://www.google.com
  • A completely different domain, eg: https://cfmotousa.com/ vs. http://www.cfmoto.com/
A table showing how you can indicate language in the URL. Language or region designations are in red.

A table showing how you can indicate language in the URL. Language or region designations are in red.

You may even decide to use different methods for different languages, but be aware that this mixed approach may be confusing to your customers.

Take GetResponse for example. If you were a Chinese user visiting Japan who opened https://www.getresponse.jp, you may the replace the “.jp” in the address bar with “.cn” to go to your own language. But unfortunately, http://getresponse.cn would send you to the wrong website.

All of the options above have different pros and cons from psychological, legal, and technical perspectives. These factors need to be carefully considered before choosing one scheme. It’s best to consider this question at the beginning of the site design process so that the URL structure fits in with the company’s overall strategy and design.

Besides, you don’t want someone to see your English site and then quickly buy up the domains they think you will want for the other languages in hopes of selling them to you later (which may have happened in the case of http://getresponse.cn/).

We’ll be publishing an article that treats the question of URL structure more fully in the near future. So if you want to be alerted when it comes out, sign up for our newsletter by requesting it on our contact us page.

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Decide How to Manage Your Translation Projects

In the old days you sent your text to your translation provider, they translated it, and then they sent the translated text back to you. Nowadays you can still do that, but there are also much more convenient workflows for website translation.

Three common workflows are the file transfer method, the CMS to TMS connection method, and the translation proxy method.

The File Transfer Method

The file transfer method is the old timey, time consuming method that you probably don’t want to have to use. For this method you send the text that you want to translate, usually in a CSV, Excel, or HTML file to your translation provider. The translation provider translates it and then emails the translations back to you.

Some companies may use this method if their website CMS cannot connect to the translation providers’ TMS software. But as mentioned in the section about choosing the right CMS, ability to connect to translation providers’ software should be a CMS selection criterion.

The file transfer method has a number of drawbacks.

  • First, it’s manual, leading to hours of busywork.
  • Second, if you can’t easily export and import your text from and into your CMS, you will have to copy and paste all of the text from your site into Word documents or Excel sheets by yourself. This involves a major risk of human error.
  • Third, if the original site has any change, the content will once again need to be manually exported, sent to the LSP, translated, sent back, and uploaded to the site. Updating content can be a logistical nightmare.

If you can avoid it, the file transfer method is probably not the best for you.

The file transfer method

Here’s the obligatory stock photo of a woman looking stressed and holding her head.

CMS Integration

This is a connection between your CMS and your translation company’s translation management systems (TMS).

The CMS integration connects to the TMS via APIs. It provides an interface for content managers to select text and send it to the TMS for translation. When the content has been translated, the LSP can send it back through the same system.

But don’t think of an API as a magic wand. The fact that a system has an API doesn’t mean the two systems will actually work together well. The only way to be sure whether the system integrates seamlessly is by speaking with the people who have done CMS and TMS integrations before. Get their recommendations on the best systems.

IVANNOVATION partners with the WPML WordPress plugin to connect sites to our TMS. We have found that this results in a convenient translation workflow.

Connecting the CMS with the TMS saves time with translation project management

Connecting the CMS with the TMS saves time with translation project management.

Translation proxy

Translation proxy is an interesting alternative. It has great strengths as well as some major limitations.

Basically the proxy server stands between your website and your foreign language users. It acts almost like an overlay over your website. If foreign language customers request their native tongue, the translation proxy will still show them your website, but with the English content switched out for the other language.

The translation proxy works by pulling the text from your source site into the proxy server. There the content can be translated and then served back to users.

It will also monitor for changes on your website and instantly send them to translators. A translation proxy’s UI allows the translators to edit the text directly in the context of the web page WYSIWYG style.

There are a few reasons that make translation proxy a powerful solution:

  • First, it minimizes file transfer time. It’s fast. That’s great for companies that frequently update their sites.
  • Second, it’s also great for companies that do not have a multilingual CMS since the language change is handled by the translation proxy rather than by the CMS.
  • Finally, it’s great because the customer doesn’t need to deal with the IT burden of managing a multilingual site. From an IT perspective, this method is extremely easy.

Unfortunately the translation proxy method also has major limitations.

Since the users are looking at your original site with the source language replaced with target language, you can’t really serve up customized content for each region. Any change on your site gets propagated to your foreign language sites as well. The foreign language sites are like mirrors of your original site.

If you want flexibility to offer translated content on your site as well as original content, translation proxy may not be the method for you.

Translation proxy serves your original site to users except that it has the language replaced.

Translation proxy serves your original site to users except that it has the language replaced.

Since there are so many options, talk to LSPs early on in your website design process about the best way to connect your site to their systems. They will have the experience necessary to advise you on the most efficient method for your situation.

However, try to avoid letting an LSP sell you on a technology solution that will lock you into using only a single LSP.

Unless you have the power to tell your LSP that you will find another translation service, the company can give you poor service and high prices. They know there’s nothing you can do.

But, on the other hand, when the technologies you use allow you to switch to another LSP, you have much more negotiating power.

Get the Free Tool! Get your own copy of our Translation Project Q&A Spreadsheet Template to improve translation quality and efficiency.

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Decide What Level of Localization You Will Have on Your Site

Do you need to translate all of your content? Or do you just want a bare-bones foreign language website?

Do you want to use transcreation? Or translation? Do you want to use human translation? Or machine translation?

These are important questions because they will help you determine what kind of URL structure you will use as well as how to manage your translation workflow. (See previous sections.)

Some companies translate everything on their English site into another language.

But other companies decide that only some content should be translated. They may choose what to translate based on their traffic analytics or based on the company’s strategy for each market.

Beyond deciding what to translate, companies also need to decide how to translate. They may choose to translate, to transcreate, or use machine translation.

Machine translation can be used for low quality translation of large volumes of text

Machine translation can be used for low quality translation of large volumes of text

Many companies use a combination of all three types based on the type of content.

Here are the three options along an explanation and a typical use scenario:


  • Translation is when a linguist translates a message from one language to another, remaining as faithful as possible to the meaning of the original.
  • Translation can be used for any kind of important customer-facing materials. The high quality of the language used will promote the company’s strong image.


  • Transcreation is when linguists adapt a message to communicate the same tone and intent as the original, but they may take liberty to not follow the original text exactly. A good illustration is when the name of the American movie “The Expendables” was named “The Team That Dares to Die” in Chinese.
  • Transcreation is typically used for marketing materials. Perhaps the English version’s imagery or humor would be ineffective in a foreign culture, so they transcreate.

Machine translation:

  • Machine translation is translation done by a computer system such as Google Translate.
  • Sometimes companies have text that would be useful to the foreign customer, such as support documentation. However, because of the sheer volume of the content, translating with human translators would be cost prohibitive. That’s when they may use machine translation. It’s not an ideal solution because the language is awkward and inaccurate at times, but at least it’s better than having no foreign language resources at all.

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Other Details to Consider

Besides the major issues mentioned above, there are also many other important details about website localization that must be considered before even starting to develop the English language site.

Name Handling:

In some some languages, such as Japanese, the family name comes first and then the given name. The order of their “first” and “last” names are switched. If your website has forms for your customers to fill out, does it have the capability to render the names in the way a Japanese customer expects?


The USA, the Philippines, and a couple other countries list dates as month-day-year (called middle-endian by geeks). However, most countries list dates as day-month-year (little-endian in geek-speak). But a few other countries—such as China, Korea, Japan, Iran, and others—list the date as year-month-day (called big-endian by, you guessed it, geeks).

You need to design your website from the start to be able to render the dates differently according to region. Otherwise, you will need to deal with the problem later on when you localize.


A woman lying on the beach in a bikini may evoke comfortable feelings of sun and relaxation in some regions, but it might get a different reaction from people of other regions such as Iran.

If you plan to have different photos for each language version, then fine, you can decide on photos when you translate. But if your translated websites will be mirrors of your English site, you will need to think about what is appropriate in each region when you develop your English site in the first place.


White chrysanthemums may seem beautiful to an American, but it may look macabre for millions of Asians. Colors have different meanings in different cultures. Unless you want to adapt your site design for every region, decide what color scheme is most appropriate for all of your target regions when you develop your English site.

Colors have different meanings in different cultures

Colors have different meanings in different cultures


Here’s a fact that you already know but may have never considered: mailboxes are different all around the world. If you have a mailbox icon on your site, not all users will know what it is. However, if you use an envelope icon, it should be clear to all.

Make sure that your icons and maybe even logos are not culture-specific.

Language Selector:

When you design the English version of the site, don’t forget that you will need to have a language selector somewhere in the page design. Think of this during the initial design stage so that it can be worked into the page in an aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly way.

Technical Issues:

There are a whole host of technical development issues that must be considered when developing the site in the first place. Examples include how to sort lists, how to code messages to the user based on variables, how the site will initially detect language, and so on.

It pays to review the technical literature about how to develop a localizable site before you start spending money on your new site.

An old but still relevant article on some of the technical issues is this article from Smashing Magazine. 

Save Time by Planning Ahead

In this article we have listed several factors that must be evaluated before the site development begins. Neglecting these issues could lead to your company having to redo parts of the site when it is time to localize. Or it could lead to extra work with every language you translate into. Or it could lead to a disorganized and confusing site design.

If you already have a site and you are thinking of how to localize the website into other languages, don’t panic. Use this article as a guide to prepare for what issues may come up as you prepare to go multilingual.

It always pays to think ahead, and with website design it especially pays to consider localization as early in the process as possible.

Was this information useful to you? Would it be useful for your contacts? Feel free to hit a social sharing button on the screen to share the love!

Darren Jansen, business development and content manager for IVANNOVATION, has a lifetime love for tech and languages. At IVANNOVATION he helps software developers get professional localization for their apps, software, and websites. On his time away from the office, he can be found hiking the Carolina wilderness or reading Chinese literature.

February 4, 2019

5 Software Localization Mistakes That You Don’t Want to Make

We know that localization of software and mobile applications is extremely important if you want to expand to new international markets. Now let’s talk about the most common software localization mistakes.

1. Thinking You Won’t Need to Localize Your Software

The most important thing for any software developer who MAY (or may NOT) decide to localize their software is to prepare the newly developed application for internationalization from the very beginning.

This includes developing with a dedicated language resource file. That means that whatever text (or “strings”) the users see in the user interface comes not from the code but rather from the resource file. That way all of the text will be in one file or set of files whenever you decide to expand internationally.

You will be able to take this language file, easily replace it with the file for another language, and voilà! It’s translated.

Preparing for a multilingual software launch requires the cooperation of developers

If you don’t build your application with a resource file, you may need to find strings in your code and then copy and paste translations.

Whenever manual copy and paste is required for localization, the element of human error is maximized. There are bound to be mistakes.

So rather than develop for English only, follow best practices and develop with the potential of a future software localization project in mind—just in case.

And whenever (or if) you decide to go ahead and localize your software, you will be able to do that more easily because no software development changes will be needed.

Further, the chances of your code being corrupted by translators is minimized. The people who work on localization of your software, will work with only specific language files, not your code.

2. Thinking All Language Structures Are the Same 

All the text in any software app is broken into strings, and these strings may include all sorts of things, such as numbers, percentages, special characters, and—obviously—text. Developers tend to break strings down into smaller entities that are easier to handle for them —but almost impossible to handle for translators.

For example, developers may take a string:

“15% off”

And break it into two strings like this:




That way they can replace the percentage on the fly. It may say “15%” off one day and then “20% off” another day depending on requirements.

However, imagine how many options a translator has when they see the word “off” without context? And of course this “15%” part will be in a variable which the poor translator cannot see. So is it off like “take off” or off like “percent off” or off like “knock off” or off like “turn off”?

And even if they know the meaning of this specific “off,” the problem is that in many languages the word should go BEFORE the percentage variable, i.e. in Russian it should read:

“Скидка 15%”

That means that after the software is translated, it will read “15% Скидка,” which is ungrammatical.

The same goes for adjectives and nouns. In English our grammatical order is adjective-noun whereas in Spanish it is noun-adjective. If the developers have the strings separated as “red” and “Volvo,” for example, rather than “red Volvo,” then the Spanish version will say “rojo Volvo.” That’s nonsense.

Bad Coding English to Spanish Software Localization Mistakes

Further, many languages need different forms of nouns that accompany numbers so you may need different strings to go with the numbers 1, 2 or 3, or 4 and anything over 5. This should also be prepared in advance so that the translators don’t need to come up with unnatural universal structures—which are not always possible.

Translators are not always happy about decisions developers make to assemble sentences in the code using short strings. . . and neither are end users.

Long all-inclusive strings (like “15% off” rather than broken down strings like “15%” and “off”) are much better. They help ensure that localization will work in the future—even for Chinese or Japanese, which are obviously very different from European languages.

3. Thinking That Google Translate Is Enough

Google Translate is named Google Translate for a reason, right? It should be able to translate, right?

Well, as someone working in translation and localization for decades now, am I scared and thinking of mastering some alternative career now that Google Translate is here and will take my job?

No.Translation and localization still remains a viable career for years to come. Machine translation does not perform as flawlessly as many expect. This deserves a separate post so I won’t go into details here, but you can read more about machine translation elsewhere on our blog.

Read more: Funny Siri Responses and What It Tells Us About Machine Translation

Read more: This Is Why Translation Software Can Never Replace Humans

If you frequent Facebook groups for professional translators where people post hilarious examples of machine translation—you will quickly see why all these people are still in translation and software localization business and why you should prefer to pay these people instead of relying on free—but unreliable—Google Translate.

For some cringe-worthy examples of bad translations, some compliments of machine translation, see our article 16 Hilarious Translation Mistakes

Translation Mistake

4. Thinking Anyone Who Knows a Foreign Language Will Be Able to Localize Your Software

Your brother-in-law learned some Italian at school and is out of a job now? You think he will be able to handle localization of your mobile app to Italian since he has nothing better to do?

Chances are it will end in a disaster and you will end up destroying your relationship with not only your brother-in-law, but also your Italian-speaking users. Sometimes, in fact, no translation is better than poor translation.

People who work in localization for years tend to know numerous specifics and industry standards. They know how to handle variables and units of measure They know what gender-neutral translation is and how your potential users expect to have various common user interface elements translated. Your friends or family probably don’t have this background—and the fact that they will cost less or nothing at all won’t make their results any better.

As we like to say, if you think good translations are expensive, just wait ‘til you see your long-term costs for getting lousy translations!

5. Hiring Freelancers to Cut Costs

When you finally make a decision to localize your software properly, you may want to cut costs slightly and hire a bunch of freelance translators to do it.

There are great freelance translators out there. Many of them. There are dedicated websites where you can easily find them all and choose the best ones to work with. But—there’s definitely a “but”—the best freelancers may not be available because they already have plenty on their hands.

Working with freelance translators means you need to interview and hire

Working with freelance translators means you need to interview and hire

It’s not impossible to find excellent freelance people, but it will take tons of time and effort. You will receive hundreds (if not thousands) of applications from all sorts of people with all sorts of per-word rates, and you will be amazed how different the rates are. You may be tempted to choose the cheapest ones but will soon realize they may not be the best ones.

Or you may even think that paying the highest rates is still better than paying a full-service translation agency—language service provider—and so you choose the expensive translators.

But you will soon realize that hiring and managing a group of freelance translators may turn into a full-time job for you. As you look at the profiles you wonder: is the profile actually legitimate? Or did he or she just copy the profile text from another translator? Now you are going to be calling up their references at agencies around the world to ask about quality of work.

Once you choose freelancers and start the project, you will find all your time goes to answering translator questions, dealing with unreadable files, and stressing out when a translator has a personal emergency that will lead to broken deadlines.

Read more: 5 Reasons You Should Work with an LSP

So stay tuned as in the next post we will discuss how to localize software and mobile apps right from the very beginning.

Software Localization Series

This is part 2 of our software localization series. See the other parts below.

  1. Software Localization—Don’t Make This Fatal Error
  2. 5 Software Localization Mistakes That You Don’t Want to Make
October 25, 2017

Building Bridges Through Expert Translation Services

We, here at Ivannovation, are proud to announce our latest feature in the GSA Business Report regarding our translation services, in time for our 20th anniversary coming up July of 2018.

Expert Translation Services

Foreign translation services have been our specialty since 1998. We provide these services to various businesses, which include complex and technical fields. We specialize in helping companies and firms in the fields of construction, law, manufacturing, and software.

Currently, we have 350 translators who are experts in 35 different languages. A client who needs a French translation, for example, will be assigned a translator living in France. This is because we believe that our clients should have the most accurate translations possible. Canadian French or French spoken anywhere other than France may vary in colloquialisms and other aspects.

Besides translation services, we also offer consulting and localization services. By consulting with us, we can help with matters such as a foreign launch of a product or service. Localization helps with assuring that a product, service or website is culturally accurate for its target market.

Building Bridges Through Our Translation Services

Be sure to read the full article, “Ivannovation builds bridges through expert translation” to find out how we came up with our company name and more.

Gisel Olivares, Content Editor + Creator + Curator at her online business, GeeOlives. GeeOlives provides social media management, copywriting and editing, web customization and development, and graphic design, among other related services to small businesses, nonprofits, and sustainable brands. I have a love for languages, traveling, social media, and writing. I am fluent in English and Spanish, and still working on perfecting my French while living in France for almost three years.

September 2, 2016

8+ Tips for Marketing Your App in China

Are you yearning to earn some Yuan?

Maybe selling an app to China’s millions would do the trick. But can you just post your English app on an app store? Then hope that people will know what it is and how it works? Or can you just do a quick translation of the app? Then expect to feel your pockets fill up with gold?

Unfortunately selling an app in China is not as easy as posting it to Google Play or the Apple App Store. Nor is it as easy as just translating it.

If you want your wallet to bulge with copies of Mao’s portrait, then follow these tips for releasing an app in China.

Mao's face on Chinese Yuan. Tips for publishing an app in China.

Mao’s face on Chinese Yuan


The citizens of Hong Kong are well-known for speaking excellent English. However, outside of the large coastal cities of China, few people are proficient in English. Even those who have a high English proficiency prefer to buy from websites that are in Chinese.

But you cannot simply translate an app word for word and expect that it will meet the needs of Chinese consumers. The app needs to be truly localized. For example, dates in China start with the year, then the month, and then the day. Chinese names have the family name first and then the given name. These are basic localization factors that need to taken into account when the app is under development.

Still, there is more to effectively localizing. In order to really appeal to the masses, you must speak appropriately to their culture.

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For example, young Chinese like to use Internet slang. One commercial featuring Jackie Chan depicted him saying “Duang.” This word took off with the masses even though that combination of sounds had never existed in the Chinese language before. That didn’t bother the Chinese Internet world. Netizens even invented a new character for the word by combining Jackie Chan’s family name and given name into one character. This word immediately insinuated itself into advertisements, news headlines, and countless online discussions. It was everywhere.

Working with a Chinese partner who understands this up-and-coming terminology can give you an idea of what words can resonate with your target audience.

Not only is Internet slang popular, but it also set phrases, called chengyu. They come from history and ancient literature and speaks to the hearts of Chinese people. The phrase “discussing military strategy on paper” does not really mean much to non-Chinese. However, Chinese immediately know the story behind that short phrase, and they know the meaning. It is worthless to have an intellectual knowledge of something without a practical ability. By using chengyu you can communicate a deep meaning with few words. As well as show your literary knowledge at the same time.

Finally, names of foreign brands must turn to localization in a way that appeals to Chinese consumers. Very often foreign names are written using Chinese characters that sound out the foreign name. However, these can be hard to remember for Chinese people because they are like a random assortment of Chinese characters. This type of Chinese name can be just as hard for Chinese people to remember as Chinese names are for you.

Therefore, many companies, rather than sounding out their English names in Chinese, create a new Chinese name that is meaningful to Chinese people and easy to remember. The meaning of the Chinese name may not be exactly the same as the meaning of the English name, but it sounds good and feels right.

An example of a movie named this way: The Expendables in Chinese is literally “the team that dares to die.”

The Expendables

Men with guns

Design Your App for China

Not only does the language need to be Chinese, but the app design needs to be Chinese as well. Chinese web users are much more comfortable with what Americans would call clutter. One web portal page can have hundreds of links.

Compare the NetEase web portal to Yahoo.


A screenshot of NetEase

Screenshot of Yahoo

Screenshot of Yahoo

In addition, Chinese web pages are often full of movement. When you open up the Chinese web portal www.163.com, a large advertisement opens from the top for about five seconds. It then withdraws back to the top, but a newsfeed photo slider continuously changes photos, text scrolls along the sides, and advertisements on the sides never stop flashing and changing. What an American user might find infuriating is normal to a Chinese user.

GIF of NetEase

GIF of NetEase

Websites and apps are even designed differently in hidden ways as well. Chinese web designers use blank links—links which open the webpage in a new browser tab—much more frequently than American web designers do.

For an in-depth comparison of American and Chinese app design see  Dan Grover’s blog.

Release on Android

iPhones are extremely popular in China. Netizens have even nicknamed the iPhone “kidney” in reference to the story of a person who sold his kidney to buy an iPhone.

However, because much of the smartphone market growth is due to less affluent people in smaller cities, cheaper alternatives based on Android are driving growth. Local brands such as Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, and Lenovo all sell well across China.

Android is where the people are; about 70% of gamers on mobile devices in China are using Android.

Nevertheless, note that iPhone users on average spend more money on apps than Android users do.

Publish on Multiple Third-Party App Stores

Unlike in America, where Google Play and the Apple App Store dominate the market, in China more than 300 Android app stores vie for consumers. The top stores are Myapp by Tencent, 360 Mobile Assistant, and Baidu Mobile Assistant. These stores have an installation base of 26%, 23%, and 18% respectively. Google Play, on the other hand, has a mere 5%.

“In fact, Google play is blocked in China,” says Shlomo Freund, the founder of AppInChina.  “So even though it has some market share, few people use that store. It’s mostly used by foreigners or tourists coming in. Its market share comes from pre-installs on Android phones. Otherwise, I don’t see Chinese mobile users downloading the Google Play store to their phones actively.”

How to market an app in China. Be sure to release it on local app stores like Myapp Store by Tencent

Myapp Store by Tencent

Studies show that developers can improve distribution by 200% by publishing on multiple platforms compared to releasing on Google Play alone. The decision on what stores to release on depends on factors like budget, demographics, and the relative market share of each store.

Here is an up-to-date list of the top 20 Chinese app stores.

Partner with a Local App Publisher

Names and name brands represented by well-known celebrities matter in China, from goods to phones to sneakers. Chinese consumers prefer to buy from a brand that they know and trust. Google’s data suggests that more than 80% of mobile gamers buy from a brand they recognize.

That means foreign app developers should be prepared to partner with a local app publisher so that consumers know that they will get an honest product without spyware and viruses.

Nevertheless, as a developer, you yourself should be alert against being cheated. Work with reputable publishers that will not simply take your ideas and leave you cold.

Integrate with Services Like QQ, WeChat, and Weibo

Be prepared to have your app and its associated websites integrate with QQ, WeChat, and Weibo. WeChat has over 500 million users. While it is primarily a messaging app, it also has a Facebook-like functionality, which allows users to post updates and share web addresses.

WeChat welcome screen. WeChat is a top app in China.

WeChat welcome screen. WeChat is a top app in China.

It has become so important at driving inbound traffic, that now web developers must optimize their websites for the WeChat app.

Thomas Graziani, the founder of WalktheChat, said, “I read a ton of articles by non-Chinese mobile developers who have to test their work in multiple browsers. In China, we need only test our light apps in the WeChat browser, and if it works there, we’re good to go. That’s how universal the platform is.”

The light app that he mentions is a small web page designed specifically for the WeChat browser. In fact, sometimes these tiny apps don’t even function in a desktop browser.

In China, the mobile-first idea is old fashioned. As Kendra Schaefer says, “China is already going mobile-only.”

Use Free Apps with In-App Purchases

Chinese consumers tend to dislike paying for apps. Perhaps this has something to do with the long tradition of free information in China. You can download free music, free movies, and free books off the Chinese Internet. Students are even accustomed to getting textbooks for free, or nearly free, by taking their classmates’ textbooks to the copy center and reproducing them page by page.

Therefore free apps appeal to Chinese consumers more than paid apps at any price. That doesn’t mean though that Chinese are not willing to spend money. Chinese love to spend money, not ON apps, but IN apps. They pay for things like extra services and functions, e-commerce, and premium versions.

Happy man with money. How to publish an app in China.

Happy man with cash

As of 2013, 90% of profits from apps came from in-app purchases. Forbes magazine states that out of those who make purchases online, 80% used a mobile device to buy something last year. 20% do so weekly.

Don’t Hurt the Feelings of the Chinese People

Usually, when you hurt someone’s feelings, you kiss and makeup and it is all good. But when the Chinese government says you hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, you are in deep trouble.

Try accessing Facebook or YouTube in China, and you will understand what happens to companies that hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. The result: your website and app will be blocked. End of story.

There is no Western Internet giant big and powerful enough to ignore the laws of China. Follow the rules or stay out.

This means paying attention to a whole host of issues. If your site or app features a map in it, be sure to consult with the government’s official maps first. Pro tip: Be aware that Beijing wants Taiwan to be the same color as the Mainland. Also, remember the nine-dash line.

Blog content and discussion forums’ discussions had better not stray from the view of the People’s Daily, the official government newspaper.

Don’t just assume that it is you against the government. You need to need to be sensitive to how the people themselves feel. Anything that seems to represent China had better be treated with the utmost of respect.

Ferrari found itself the brunt of ire when it lifted a car up onto a section of the Great Wall for a photo op. Having an Italian car on the wall seemed to many the equivalent of trodding on the Chinese flag.

When Japan is involved in any way, be especially sensitive. Much negative sentiment remains from World War II. Toyota sparked a backlash when one of their advertisements showed stone lions, a traditional Chinese decoration, showing obeisance to a Toyota. This led netizens to create photos of stone lions smashing Toyotas: not the image the automaker was going for.

Beware of the pitfalls when marketing your app in China.

Stone lions with Toyota

Therefore, be sensitive to the rules of the Chinese government. As well as the views of the Chinese people.

Other Tips

Use reliable content providers: Do not rely on content from websites that are blocked or restricted in China. That means rather than using information or maps from Google, use Baidu. Rather than getting videos from YouTube, use Youku or Tudou. Also, pay attention to whether the CDN you use will work in China.

Small games: The most popular mobile games in China are games that are easy to play in short moments, like during the subway ride or while trying to appear attentive in class. Levels with short play times beat out epic games that require half an hour to make progress.

Keep apps’ bandwidth requirements small: Chinese networks tend to be slower than America’s. Therefore, do not make an app that lags and tries the user’s patience. Further, data plans can be expensive, so keep that in mind when you are asking your users to download and upload information. Keep the exchange as minimal as possible.

Do not host in America: Sites hosted in America will be much slower than those hosted in China. But hosting in China will involve a Chinese business license and a lot of red tape. To avoid both the red tape and the slow speed, try hosting in Singapore or Hong Kong.

Login credentials: Many Chinese users like to log on to services with their telephone numbers, third-party authentication, or QR codes. Don’t assume that email is the best way for everyone to log on.

Connect to bank accounts or a payment service: Credit cards are not as popular in China as in the United States. Chinese netizens often pay online by connecting to their bank account directly. Or by using one of the online payment services such as AliPay or WeChat.

WeChat Payment

WeChat Payment

More Tips for Releasing an App in China?

Clearly, opening shop in China requires more than simply posting an app on Google Play and hoping that China’s millions will come with their money. You need to enter the Chinese market the right way, but if you do, you could see rich rewards.

These are our tips for how to publish an app in China. What are your tips? Please leave a comment to share your experience or to stump us with a question.

100 Yuan via photopin (license) – photo credit

The Action Star via photopin (license) – photo credit

一切只是為了開門 | All for Open via photopin (license) – photo credit

Darren Jansen, Business development and content manager for IVANNOVATION has a lifetime love for tech and languages. At IVANNOVATION he helps software developers get professional localization for their apps, software, and websites. On his time away from the office, he can be found hiking the Carolina wilderness or reading Chinese literature.

April 30, 2015

Three Reasons to Translate your App into Chinese

Tapping a market of 1.3 billion consumers sounds like a no-brainer. Fortunately, in our interconnected world, you can communicate with anyone anywhere in the globe. You can develop an app, and it is available for billions of people in an instant. But will they ever actually find your app? How will you make them want to use it?

If you want to reach into the wallets of China’s netizens, your app has to take some Chinese lessons.

Leo Liu, the greater China country manager for PopCap Games, the developer of Plants vs. Zombies, said, “We were amazed by how much support we got from our fans in China after we localized Plants vs. Zombies on iPhone into Chinese. The comment boards were flooded with positive comments, and in only three days, the Chinese version reached the number one paid application spot on the China App Store. We’re selling twice as many copies now, in Chinese, than we ever sold in English.”

If you ever want to see the kind of Chinese app store success that Plants vs. Zombies achieved, you’ll have to translate your app into Chinese. Here are three reasons your app should speak Chinese.

Chinese Plants Vs. Zombies

Chinese Plants Vs. Zombies

Chinese Internet and Smartphone Users Outnumber American Users

In China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion, 47.9% of the people use the Internet. That is about 649 million people. (In comparison, the number of American Internet users is just about 280 million.) Out of that number, according to Reuters, 86% of them use phones to access the Internet.

Clearly, if you want to do business in China, you have to master mobile. Over 39% of Internet usage in China takes place on mobile devices. That includes shopping. In the third quarter of 2014 Chinese used mobile devices to spend more than $37.95 billion.

As Kendra Schaefer says, “Mobile First? Puh-leez. China Is Already Going Mobile Only.”

China Has a Low Average English Level

Out of 63 countries ranked by English First’s English Proficiency Index, China ranked 37, receiving a grade of “low” for English level.

Of course, millions of Chinese people have amazing English knowledge and skills, even better than some Americans or British, but most of the proficient English speakers live in a few first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

In second-tier cities and in the countryside live millions of consumers with little to no English ability. You don’t want to assume that those who cannot read your app’s user interface will have the patience to use it anyway.

Studies show that even those who can speak English still prefer to use websites and apps that are translated into their own language.

Get a quote

The Journal of Consumer Research says that content written in a person’s native language will cause a greater emotional reaction than content written in their second language. Authors of the study said, “Our findings show that, in general, messages expressed in consumers’ native languages tend to be perceived as more emotional than messages expressed in their second language.”

As an app developer, you should speak the language of people’s home and heart. Only if you make that connection by translating your app into Chinese will users in China want to download, and perhaps spend money on your app.

Chinese Use Their Phones for Everything

The app WeChat acts not only as a messaging app but also as an online wallet similar to PayPal. What’s more, you can use it to hail taxis, to order groceries, and to play games. It will even tell you what parts of the city are most crowded at any given time.

In China, telephones have a breadth of function that phones in America don’t fulfill in the same way. While PayPal is still rarely used in brick-and-mortar stores, WeChat payments are now common all over China.

WeChat Payment - Translate your app into Chinese

WeChat Payment

Clearly Chinese are used to using apps to deal with every aspect of their lives.

Although studies show that that Chinese prefer not to pay for apps, they do love to spend money in apps. Ninety percent of the money made from apps comes from in-app purchases.

As Internet usage in China continues to grow with a mobile-centric bent, be sure that app developers have endless opportunities to reach the Chinese consumers and increase their global revenue. There has never been a better time than now to translate your app into Chinese.

Darren Jansen, Business development and content manager for IVANNOVATION has a lifetime love for tech and languages. At IVANNOVATION he helps software developers get professional localization for their apps, software, and websites. On his time away from the office, he can be found hiking the Carolina wilderness or reading Chinese literature.