Lately I've been spending a lot of time in the French speaking part of Switzerland. In being here I've noticed an awful lot of websites, including big names like paypal and google, breaking a major usability rule- try as I might to go to British paypal I often find myself redirected to a horrible Swiss German language version (most natives in this area don't even speak German!)

I've encountered this frequently in my time elsewhere, and it does seem to be somewhat in decline. But still redirects based upon IP addresses rather than user settings persist.

My question then: What possible justification is there to do this? I think its fair to say we all agree it is bad usability. But nothing in this world is black and white. What are the advantages of breaking this rule?- I have to believe paypal is not doing it out of pure idiocy.

  • I assume the redirects are happening before you log in? What happens if you're on a German landing page and then log in? Does it switch to English?
    – tohster
    May 19, 2015 at 13:46
  • 1
    What rule is this breaking, exactly? May 19, 2015 at 15:03
  • that's weird, both the examples you mention respect user settings, at least for me. I live in Argentina, and have Paypal in English and Google US set as default (since I need to know what my clients see when they do a search). Are you sure you're not blocking cookies?
    – Devin
    Sep 8, 2016 at 21:04

6 Answers 6


I can not speak with authority on the subject, but I believe it is mainly due to legal reasons. Google for example knows very well when you're browsing a site in a language different from your browser settings: it even offers to translate the page for you. However, go to www.google.com and you'll always be redirected to the country-specific version. This way they can probably guarantee everybody is served a page that complies with local laws. Google-owned Blogger.com specifically states that they redirect users to make sure content that has been flagged in one country isn't accidentally shown.

So why aren't local country versions and language choice separate? A site could redirect to the German version but still show the English translation if your browser settings require so. The answer to that is most likely administrative: local versions show different, country-specific content, and translating and maintaining every local content into every possible language is not cost-effective considering that users can simply choose to navigate to another country's version to read the content in their language.

In the case of multiple supported languages for the same country as in your Switzerland example, the site should serve the proper language, but sites implement it differently. Google seems to rely on your language settings in your profile, meaning you have to be logged in. I'm not sure how Paypal handles it, but the right thing to do is check the browser's settings and use that as the default if it's supported. If you're British and your browser accepted language setting is set to "EN-GB" then a Swiss site doesn't know what to serve, because English isn't one of the supported locales of that country's version. In that case it's reasonable to default to the majority language, in this case German.

UX is still important at this stage and some deal with it better than others. Many big sites offer an easy way to switch to a different country version and/or language, and oftentimes the user's choice is remembered. You can try it with Google and PayPal: the first time on a new computer you will be redirected, but if you then switch to another version it won't redirect you again in the future.

  • on the google case I have heard from an American friend in Japan that he is always using .co.uk since the American .com is inaccessible to him thanks to redirects. That its for legal reasons would make sense in paypal being the biggest culprit (though that they wouldn't realise 1/3 of the country doesn't speak German....) but I have seen ti elsewhere too. I will try and experiment with switching my settings to french and italian to see if it picks me up with that, interesting theory though English is usually supported in Switzerland May 21, 2015 at 10:57

I think there are multiple reasons:

  • Convenience (I myself prefer to do financial stuff in my native language. I'm just one person, but many others share this opinion)
  • Language barrier (a lot of people still do not speak English, of which most people assume everyone is able to read/write/speak English)
  • Ads for your locale
  • Not knowing there is a domain of CompanyX in your language (i.e. Google.com is univeral, Google.fr is for France). When I want to use PayPal, I go to PayPal.com, instead of PayPal.nl (my locale)

I hope I contributed and haven't said things you already know.


I work in online marketing for a company that sales in ~17 countries and there are three main reasons that we do this:

  1. Translation: while you may prefer English regardless of your locale, most people in a given country will want to use the dominant language. If a country has multiple languages in use (e.g. German and French in Switzerland), then we might do sites for both, but will often choose the one with the most demand if budgets are tight.

  2. Legal: Cookies, promotional language, return policies, privacy policies and many other things are regulated differently in different countries. We have to show you the content that adheres to local laws.

  3. Merchandising: We don't necessarily sell all the same products in each country. Nor are the prices (or discounts) going to be the same. Putting you on the local site ensures that you are getting prices and offers that you can use.

Hope this helps.


A good website might a) detect your browser language settings and provide you with your preferred language or b) if using your IP to get your location and thereby assuming a language, give you an override - which it remembers - to change your preferences.

Have you set your browser preferences to show your preferred language(s)?

  • This doesn't really answer the question. If you are seeking clarification on elements of the question please use a comment, instead of an answer. The question is not how the OP fixes his particular redirect issue, but the reason why websites do it and if a usability principle is being violated. May 19, 2015 at 16:01
  • Welcome to the site, @Ian. This post doesn't appear to answer the OP's question of what reasons there could be not using the user-preference settings. You may want to consider editing it to clarify that. May 19, 2015 at 16:03

If the company physically operates in the country in question, the subsidiary or branch office will have legal liabilities and contractual obligations separate of the main entity.

Since there are separate legal responsibilities, it is probably safer to serve a site that was specifically designed to match those. It also simplifies administration. If there is on issue in Switzerland it is easier if it is handled in Switzerland entirely and that means that any transactions should have happened using the site the Swiss unit controls and is responsible for. The UK site, for example, is controlled by separate unit in different jurisdiction. Staying in single jurisdiction and single unit makes everything easier.

For paypal specifically, it is IIRC in the business of money transfers, that requires registration with the relevant financial authorities and following specific local regulations. Switzerland is not a member of the EU or the EEA so local presence is probably required in some form. (The alternative would be paying some separate Swiss entity for the service.)

There might also be contractual obligations. For example, a Swiss unit of a company might have a binding contract that certain services are handled by a specific company in Switzerland. The UK unit might have a similar contract with a different company.

And sometimes there are even laws that require offering service in the local language. Which a company that has presence in the country is subject to. On business transactions (paypal is a commercial service, right?) there is also the matter of where taxes on the transaction are paid to. Many companies seem to use complex transactions to avoid almost all taxes but they still must do the bookkeeping properly. And that means knowing where the transaction happens is a good idea. An international transaction often is subject to entirely different rules.

Note that much of what I wrote above is probably incorrect. The basic idea of the issues involved should be close enough to be relevant.


I think that most of the answers here are missing the point. The question is about usability and clearly it is not good for usability if your language is simply not supported in a given locale. The only excuse for this is that it is too difficult/time consuming/costly to maintain the site in question in multiple languages.

If the only reaction a site can make when faced with a request for a different language is to send the user to a site within a different locale, because that happens to support the requested language, then this is also not good usability (Tesla's website does this, for example as well as many others).

Of course it's probably not feasible to offer a website in every conceivable language and some sort of auto translation is probably not ideal either but what I think websites could do is inform the users to let them know that their usability issue is recognized as such. They could maybe also add the top 2 or 3 most common second languages if they have the time/money and really want to impress that small group of (wealthy?) global business people who'd really appreciate it ;-)

  • sorry, how is this answering the question? It looks like just a rant. Furthermore, having a lot of versions in different languages isn't a problem at all, the OP is mentioning these sites have almost "every conceivable language", which is the exact opposite to your comment
    – Devin
    Jan 19, 2018 at 17:17

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