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I'm looking to capture French, Spanish, German, and Russian languages.
1. We have established English websites on a specific niche. Would you suggest a local TLD, subdomain or a subfolder for each language? (We don't physical business locations in each country.)
2. Which parts of the website do you usually translate (home page, about us, registration page, contact us, etc.) or would you cover the entire website?
3. Would you translate the meta description and alt tags of your images?
4. Would it be logical to disclose to your audience that despite the fact we cater to different audiences of different languages, our support/customer service will only be in English? Or is there any other smart way of addressing this issue?
Looking forward to your thoughts.
It appears to me, however, that few sites really do this, and I also think that Google tends to prefer local TLD.
I'd suggest translating the entire site, if feasible, for best results.
Absolutely translate meta content and alt info! Likewise, seriously consider translating directory and file names.
For your question #4, you might still consider using content negotiation to pop up a box on a layer, asking if the user prefers a particular language.
Since I live in .au, I can see that many Australians use Google.com.au set to Pages from Australia when they need a local result. Unless you point a gTLD to .au in Google WMT or use a .au ccTLD, you won't appear for such searches. Relying on IP addresses is unreliable. :) Hence I prefer to see the use of ccTLDs, local translations, language identifiers in the code, and ideally, a fresh template for each country.
I am currently helping out a businesss that is physically in 35 countries and which uses numerous languages but is using just one .com gTLD. They have used subdomains for the non-English languages, e.g. jp.example.com. WMT has not been used to point to any country. They are using some tool for content negotiation (on IIS), which merely replaces a news story on their home page (and possibly other pages) with a local story, e.g. an Irish success story if the viewer is in Ireland.
As for my example Australian company, it is hosted here, which has worked against their global goals. It does very well for its main search terms in google.com.au (Pages from Australia), but very poorly in google.com. Their global expansion is recent, hence the strong bias towards Australian ranking. Their inbound links also heavily favour Australian sites, for the same historic reasons. I haven't finished diagnosing their situation, but I expect to be recommending a ccTLD solution.
Don't overlook the off-site work. If you want the better regional directories to list the website in various countries, will they admit the URL into their directory? That should help you decide.
In my observation of other global businesses including my past employers, the implementation seems to be weighted towards saving money in the head office (and the webmaster's time) and not what's best for international revenues.
Sometimes petty thinking, e.g. "Our (head office) IT budget does not cover the website in Country X and they are just a sales office, so they will have to share our website". Such decisions probably never reach the notice of top management, which might only see poor sales (traffic) in those countries.