26 min read

WordPress Localization and Internationalization: Can It Be Done? Should It Be Done?

WordPress can be set up to deliver internationalized content. It’s not the most elegant solution. Let me talk you through the best options.

Tim Davidson
Tim Davidson

WordPress can be set up to deliver localized and internationalized content. It’s not the most elegant solution, and there are a few pitfalls to look out for, but it’s totally possible.

However, every time we get this question from a client and they’re committed to making it work, they end up leaving WordPress.

Let me explain what usually happens.

You're working with a high-growth SaaS business (or one that’s just received funding) that’s running a WordPress site that’s a little dated and could be significantly more effective at driving business.

Management wants to think big and invest in growth. Naturally, marketing to different countries pops up as an objective.

Despite the company having plenty of technical folks, none of the developers have deep experience with WordPress and the question "Can WordPress handle internationalization?" comes up.

After digging around the plugin market, you figure out that the short answer is yes.

You set up the plugins or work with your WordPress freelancer to get it set up. This takes a few weeks and is more complicated than originally thought, but you’ve got three different countries configured.

However, your SEO agency suggests making some changes to slugs and page naming to better align with search intent.

All of a sudden, your site has broken links and orphaned pages everywhere. Applying a fix is slow because you’ve got to jump between three separate versions of the website and solve the issues one by one. There’s no way to do this programmatically, and it’s a huge time-sink.

Eventually, the marketing team stops making big changes to the website. The risk of breaking something is too high.

This is when the search begins for a solution that can handle internationalization and localization without becoming a big mess…

If this sounds familiar, then read on because I’ll lay out some technology options that will make your life easier going forward.

But before we get onto that, I’ll dive a bit deeper into how WordPress can tick the boxes if rebuilding your website to a different framework isn’t a realistic option right now.

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    How Does WordPress Handle Internationalization?

    To take your WordPress site to an international audience, you'll likely end up using plugins (unless you’re a PHP wizard and like to go off road).

    You’ll need one plugin for internationalization and another for localization. WPML and Polylang are good options for content translation.

    If you're looking to also localize the content based on where your visitor is coming from, GeoIP Detection and IP2Location are solid choices.

    But here's the catch. Let's say you choose WPML for internationalization and GeoIP Detection for localization. These two plugins have to work in concert to first translate your content and then serve the appropriate language and currency based on the user's location.

    Sound cumbersome? You bet.

    Also want to throw in some Cloudflare caching? Be prepared to fix some issues.

    The Downsides

    Let's talk about user experience from an admin's point of view. Managing content across different languages and regions is like juggling with too many balls in the air. WordPress by itself was never designed with robust internationalization in mind, so these plugins are more like band-aids.

    One specific downside is the management of dynamic fields like page slugs. In a standard WordPress setup, these update automatically.

    When you Introduce plugins into the mix to create country-specific versions of your site, suddenly you find that the dynamically updated fields become static. Multiply this issue by the number of countries you're targeting, and it turns into a logistical nightmare.

    The Performance Puzzle

    Performance is another significant concern. To maintain acceptable page load times across continents, you might be considering setting up servers in multiple regions. You could rely on Cloudflare for caching to speed things up, but it’s tricky to configure and manage. Caching mechanisms often conflict with internationalization plugins, which need to serve different content based on geography.

    On top of that, setting up servers in multiple locations doesn't come cheap. We're talking about an investment that starts with hardware and includes ongoing costs for maintenance, security, and manpower. It's like adding more layers to an already complicated setup.

    So, you're at the point where you're investing time, money, and resources into making WordPress do something it's not inherently good at. But is there another way?

    A Better Path: Going Headless

    It's worth asking if there's a better approach to achieving internationalization for your SaaS business. Enter headless Content Management Systems (CMS).

    Headless CMSs come with native features that support international content management. You can easily manage and deploy content in multiple languages without depending on an array of plugins.

    The built-in capabilities for translation and content localization are better than WordPress, largely because this is a feature common to most headless CMSs. As a native feature, the core development team gave it enough attention to do a good job solving the problem.

    Sanity or Storyblok?

    Most of the headless CMSs have some internationalisation features, but Sanity and Storyblok do the best job (in my opinion).

    They allow translations to happen at the document, page or field level. This means you can create an entire translated version of your site or just limit it to parts of your site.

    Sanity localization arrays

    This caters to a bunch of situations:

    • Change a single headline just for your U.S. customers.
    • Add a unique pricing page for your U.K. audience.
    • Translating blog articles into different languages.
    Sanity document translations

    CMSs like Sanity and Storyblok integrate translation features directly into the content editor experience. You can manage content in multiple languages side by side, streamlining your workflow and saving time.

    By comparison, with WordPress, you would have to switch between different settings within plugins and interfaces to achieve the same outcome.

    The Migration Factor

    If you're serious about using your website to scale internationally, you'll likely find that WordPress becomes too unwieldy.

    Transitioning to a headless CMS like Sanity or Storyblok is a significant project. But weigh that against the time and resources you'll eventually expend on maintaining a clunky WordPress setup, and the scales tip in favour of going headless.

    Even if you think you can manage with WordPress for now, consider future scalability. As your business grows, a setup dependent on plugins and additional servers will require substantial resources for upkeep. Instead, with a headless system, you're investing in a scalable architecture right from the get-go.

    A Trend Among International SaaS Brands

    This isn't a novel concept restricted to a handful of innovative companies. Countless SaaS brands, like Algolia and BigCommerce, have already transitioned to headless technologies for international expansion. They've recognized the limitations of traditional CMS platforms and have opted for more agile, scalable solutions.

    Final Thoughts and Wrap-Up

    Let's put all this into perspective. The world of SaaS is inherently competitive. As you're eyeing international markets, the last thing you want is a content management system that hampers your agility and responsiveness. Time and resources spent on managing a convoluted system could be better allocated to product development or customer engagement.

    Why Going Headless is Worth the Effort

    Taking the plunge and transitioning from WordPress to a headless system might feel like a herculean task. It's an investment that pays off. Once you've made the switch, you can manage international content much more efficiently. Your team won't duck off to the toilet for 20 minutes to hide when it’s time to update content, and you won't be burning money on server costs for sub-optimal performance.

    The point here is not to disparage WordPress. It has its merits, but when it comes to internationalizing a rapidly growing SaaS business, it's not the most scalable or efficient option. The quicker you transition to a more capable system, the more smoothly your business will operate as it expands globally.

    Final Arguments for Going Headless

    • Future-Proof Your Business
    • Quicker developer velocity
    • Create content quicker with more streamlined tools
    • Better page load speeds and SEO
    • Easier to manage international content
    • Cheaper to deploy and manage on an international scale
    • Leverage more powerful frontend frameworks like Next.js

    The path to international expansion is challenging. From compliance with local laws to adapting your product or service to meet the unique needs of each market. Your content management system shouldn't be one of those challenges. With platforms like Sanity and Storyblok, internationalization becomes one less hurdle to overcome.

    If you're considering scaling your SaaS business internationally and are still using WordPress, it might be time to rethink that strategy. Opt for a solution built with the complexities of internationalization in mind, and you'll be far better positioned for global success.

    Written by
    Tim Davidson

    Tim Davidson

    Tim is the face of the company. When you want to kick off a new project, or an update on your existing project, Tim is your man!

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