(Updated 26th of February 2020)
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands are particularly keen to grow internationally. This is natural: 70% of European online purchases are already made across national borders. A very common question asked by online merchants who sell internationally, or aim to do so, is how to set up multilingual store versions.
International e-commerce is about much more than language versions. There is no one right answer, because brands’ and merchants’ starting levels vary. This article aims to help in the decision making when it comes to setting up a multilingual Shopify store.
There were previously three ways of delivering language versions on Shopify: separate stores, using translation apps or Headless Commerce implementation (In this article we are focusing only to first two alternative, because a headless implementation is an architecture choice that requires deeper understanding of the whole solution). From the first two, we have only recommended separate stores, because translation apps gave deficient results, to say the least, from an SEO (search engine optimization) perspective.
In June 2019, at Shopify Unite, a new option for translation apps was presented: an extension to the Shopifyn GraphQL API, which was released in late 2019. It has changed things considerably. Translation apps can now also function correctly and new languages can be added, up to five language versions in one store (e.g.: domain.com/fi, domain.com/en, domain.com/se).
There are still two alternatives, if headless implementation is not counted, but you can now base your choice more on need and less on the technical solution. So when is it worth choosing separate stores and when is it worth choosing separate language versions in a single store? You should think about the issue from a broader perspective. Different markets offer much more to think about than language. This includes marketing, other sales channels, warehouses, logistics, range, currency, pricing, payment services and to top it all, how these issues differ from one another in different markets.
Language versions inside a single store
Language versions within a single store are suitable for merchants who want to get going fast in cross-border sales, but who still consider their home market important. Maintaining one extra language may be a lot of work in the long run if you have a lot of product information, your products change often or a blog plays a crucial role in your store. When thinking about language version, you should consider the fact that it’s worth translating the entire store content, because stores with a mishmash of languages do not win customers’ trust.
Language versions are also suitable to larger merchants who want to serve their customers in the other national language in one store, with exactly the same features and settings.
How different language versions work
Shopify currently offers a user interface for language versions which you can use to add and remove languages and preview and publish translations. Shopify does not have a dedicated user interface for managing other language versions than the primary store language.
You can manage other language versions via apps or directly through the application programming interface (API). This makes sense: online merchants have different needs and this gives developers of apps for the Shopify ecosystem the opportunity to offer different solutions for a range of needs. One might offer manual translations, another – translations based on AI, and a third might connect a translation service directly to a Shopify store. The final option could mean automatic translations by translators only for blog articles.
At the time of writing, the following apps supported translations via the new API. When choosing a translation app, you should check whether the app is on this constantly updated list:
Shopify automatically adds the necessary meta and hreflang tags that allow search engines to recognize the store’s language versions. Sitemap.xml, for its part, is only generated in the primary store language. Note, too, that the store’s URLs are not transalted, so domain.com/en/products/product-name is not translated into domain.com/se/produkter/produkt-namn, but domain.com/se/products/product-name. In separate stores you can choose the slack, or end part, of the URL freely.
With the help of the Translations API you can translate the Shopify store features on this list. The list is quite extensive but not exhaustive. Examples include delivery method names and the Shopify app-specific additional fields, private metafields (these have nothing to do with SEO metafields, which may be translated). Private metafields can only be saved via the API. If you use these fields, the same app used must be able to translate them. Public metafields can be translated via the API.
Customizations made to themes with the help of tags and metatags, for example, are worth taking into consideration, but they are not a barrier to launching a new language version of a store.
Apps do not necessarily support several languages at a time
Not all the apps added to a Shopify store will necessarily support language versions. In particular, apps that modify the store theme or send customers email can prove challenging. App developers still have their work cut out for them here, as many apps still only support translating a store into one language, and not several.
Different market areas have different needs and practical issues that need resolving. Language is just one of them. Managing regional differences and solving problems related to them is indeed often easier in separate stores when you start optimizing your own processes or the store itself.
Separate stores are the best solution when you want to put one or more of the following features in place:
- Separate warehouses in different regions, because separate warehouses and their stock levels are easier to manage in separate stores. By this we particularly mean separate warehouses for each market region and which operate only for that region, such as separate warehouses for Europe and America.
- Different ranges in different market regions.
- Different prices. Pricing products differently in different regions is not recommended, as customers may feel cheated if they have to pay more.
- Market-specific campaigns are easier to run in separate stores if they have their own content elements.
- Different currencies. Only one currency can be used at the checkout in a Finnish Shopify store. On the product pages and elsewhere in the store, it is possible to show the price in different currencies. However, this is changing due to Shopify Payments, which enables payment at the checkout in different currencies (see the supported currencies here). This feature is not yet available in Finland, but we believe it soon will be. Shopify Payments is already available in Denmark and Sweden.
- Market-specific payment services can, with the exception of a few currency-specific payment services, only be added on to one store. If, nevertheless, you need several stores, just adding the necessary payment services to each store makes the Shopify checkout clearer. In this case, customers will see the payment services that are right for them, and an American customer won’t see Finnish payment methods at checkout.
Take apps and stock levels into consideration with this option, too
In different stores, you must take into consideration the fact that apps used in trading must be installed separately in several stores. Market-specific stores give you the opportunity to use the best possible app for the that market.
Using apps in different stores leads to additional costs. You generally will have to pay a few dollars per store for apps. The most expensive apps often have dedicated packaged pricing for Shopify Plus merchants, at least, which cover several stores. In the larger apps, such as Klaviyo, for email, which is a separate SaaS service, the app itself is free (and is in fact only an integration into the service), but using the service is charged separately. In this case, from the perspective of separate stores, there are hardly any impacts on cost.
If there is a single warehouse serving several stores, one of the first issues you’ll face is synchronizing stock levels between stores. However, there are good apps readily available for this, or it can be done in warehouse management system or ERP integrations, if one of these is the master system for stock levels.
Shopify Plus merchants often choose separate stores instead of separate language versions. Shopify is developing centralized admin for Shopify Plus stores, at least for the most essential elements. The exact schedule is not known, but a little advance insight was offered at Shopify Unite in 2019 on things like combined analytics and reporting on separate stores.
Shopify store admin language
The Shopify store “account language” is an independent option that does not affect the language your customers use your store in. See the list of available Shopify account languages here.