Using <select> to Link to Localized Content

Intended audience: XHTML/HTML coders (using editors or scripting), script developers (PHP, JSP, etc.), Web project managers, and anyone who wants to better understand how to use the select element for navigation to localized or regional versions of a site.



What are the best practices for using pull-down menus based on the select element to direct visitors to localized content?


As companies and organizations launch an increasing number of localized Web sites, user-friendly global navigation grows in importance.

One of the more popular devices is a pull-down menu on the home page using the select element that includes links to localized versions of the content. Such selection lists are not restricted to use on the home page, but may also be seen as a space-effective way of allowing users to switch between translations or regionally localized sites on a page by page basis.

The localized content pointed to may be an alternative country site, a translated version of a site or page, etc. In this article we avoid discussing the best way to organize the information (ie. translated vs. region-specific sites) in order to concentrate on the pros and cons and best practice associated with using selection lists to choose the content. There are numerous other aspects to global navigation that will be described in other articles.


Note that these recommendations do not apply to selection lists that are part of a form. For example, if you are filling in a form and selecting your country of residence or language from a list, then the selection list should be all in the language of the current page.

Should I use a <select> list at all?

Pull-downs can appear very attractive where space is at a premium. However, the pull-down menu is not always the best solution for global navigation and you need to decide whether it is the best solution for your Web site. The following points may help.

The key advantage of using pull-downs is to fit the selection into a smaller space.

Key disadvantages of using select for links to localized pages or sites are:

If your site supports only a handful of localized versions, it is probably better to avoid using a pull-down menu altogether and simply include links directly on the page. This gives you more flexibility to use graphics to represent foreign text, avoids the difficulty of finding a suitable non-linguistic label for the list, and allows users to recognize the presence of and link to a page much more quickly.

There are other techniques, too. For example, outline maps can be used to select region- or country-based local sites.

If your pull-down points to more than 20 other sites or pages you should consider whether this is usable for those Web users who must scroll to the end of the list. If not, you may consider linking to a dedicated global gateway page at the home page level. If linking between localized versions of specific pages, a selection page may not be a practical solution.

Best practice

If you do decide to use a pull-down menu, here are some best practices to keep in mind.

Location. Locate the pull-down menu at or near the top of the page. This location is highly visible, increasing the likelihood that the visitor will see it. Scanning studies for pages in left-to-right scripts show that positioning to the top right increases visibility. Furthermore, an increasing number of Web sites have located their global gateways in this location, conditioning Web users to come to expect it here.

Certainly avoid putting the list at the bottom of the page so that it doesn't appear in the first screenful of information (and bear in mind that one screenful can be a different amount for different users).

Labeling. Come up with a graphic design to serve as a label for the pull-down menu. You cannot expect Web users who are not fluent in English to understand "Select language". Universally recognized icons communicate to people regardless of what language they speak. In an ideal world there would be a widely recognized symbol for this. That time is still not here, though globe icons seem to be becoming more popular.

Examples of possible graphics would include globes, iconic facial profiles with lines to indicate speech, alphabetic characters from multiple scripts (especially for links to translations), etc.

The alt text for such a graphic doesn't have a great deal of importance. You may think that it needs to be in all languages, or no particular language, for accessibility, but in reality people reliant on screen readers would be able to traverse the pull-down text to find the right link.

Using the size attribute. In some cases it may be effective to use the size attribute to display the first set of options in the list – particularly if this is a long list. This suggests to the user that this is a collection of languages/regions, and may remove the need for a non-language-specific label for the list. Here is an example:

A pulldown list showing the first five selections.

Translate options. Translate the menu options into the target language. Instead of including a link on the pull-down menu to a translation that reads, for example, "French" the link should read "français"; and instead of a link to an alternative country site like "Germany" the link should read "Deutschland".

Pay attention to capitalization rules in other languages. Note how the correct translation of "French" is "français" with a lowercase 'f'.

Encoding. To display a mix of non-Latin languages, such as Arabic, Russian and Japanese, you will need a way to represent all the required characters.

Preferably you would use UTF-8 (Unicode) as the encoding for your page, since this encoding supports all the characters you will need. If you cannot use UTF-8, then you should use escapes to represent characters that are not supported by the encoding of your page.

Fonts. You must also think about whether the reader will have fonts to display this range of scripts. Be aware that a Web user in France, for example, may see empty boxes in place of the Japanese text while a user in Japan will see the text just fine. This is because the fonts available on the French user's system may not contain Japanese glyphs. One could argue that this is not too important, since French users don't need to be able to read the Japanese. On the other hand, you may feel that empty boxes are unsightly.

If you feel that empty boxes are unsightly you may be tempted to use text in graphics for non-Latin options. Unfortunately, it is not possible to include graphics in the selection list itself, but some sites add such graphics outside the pull-down menu.

For example:

A pulldown list with non-Latin selections displayed alongside.

Be warned, however, that addressing non-Latin text this way may still not solve all problems. Certain accented Latin characters, such as those in 'čeština' may produce the same effect for some users who have Latin fonts that only cover Western European languages.

Descriptions. In some cases you may want to consider following a name of a language or country in native script/language with the name in the language of the current page.

For example:

čeština (Czech)
français (French)
Deutsch (German)
日本語 (Japanese)

Using parentheses is useful because it shows more clearly that this is a clarification.

This approach is not always necessary or desirable. On the other hand users may feel more comfortable with missing font glyphs if they see

The text "日本語 (Japanese)", where Japanese characters are represented by blank squares.

Note, also, that names in the language of the current page should really be translated for every page where they appear – if you leave them in English it may give the wrong message.

Ordering. There is also the question of how to order a multilingual list of language or country names. It is not an issue that is specific to selection lists, and there is no simple answer to this.

It is difficult to apply alphabetic ordering since this varies by language, and there are also likely to be multiple scripts involved. It would be possible to follow the default order prescribed by the Unicode Collation Algorithm, but whether that would be helpful, intuitive or recognizable to the user is another question.

Other possibilities are to order the list by the size of your market, the size of the region or number of speakers of a language, or by some kind of geographical principle. Again, while these may provide a rationale for ordering, none of these approaches are necessarily helpful to the user – especially for long lists.

By the way

You should not consider automatic content negotiation to be a replacement for providing links on a page. It always makes sense to provide in page links for occasions when things don't work out as expected.

This article is specifically focused on the use of the select element. Some designers may prefer to use JavaScript to simulate pull-down lists. This can help in that you are not limited to text; you can use text in graphics to avoid font issues. There are, of course, other potential problems associated with the use of JavaScript.