Any business that operates in multiple territories can be affected by search engines failing to understand which version of the website to display in which country (or, in some cases, to which language speakers within the same country). Google introduced the hreflang tag to counteract this effect and to allow business to “mark” the intended language and location, namely the specific local search engine.
Special note should be made if you have multiple global sites in the same language – for example a US and UK website. Without hreflang in place you run the risk of displaying your results in the “wrong” search engine (for example, a US site to UK users or a UK site to US users). This is a particular risk if one of the sites is more powerful, aged and trusted in the eyes of the search engines than the other – typically because a brand may be established in one country whilst simply launching in another. There is a very real danger that the more established site will outrank its new sister site even in its home search engine.
Same country, different language
Hreflang also comes into its own in search engines like google.ca or google.be, which serve countries or regions with a multi-lingual population. To use the Canadian example, you would toggle the culture code from en to fr depending on the language of that specific page. This clearly signals to a search engine which version of the content to show, ensuring that the correct language page is indexed and served to searchers.
How do I make the business case to implement?
The implementation of hreflang does seem like a bit of a “no-brainer”, but it’s fair to say that aligning multiple marketing, SEO and development teams across multiple countries (and often languages) can prove to be taxing.
Dev queues, code freezes and a reticence to add weight to pages could all be excuses used to not implement, but ideally the business should be thinking of the global brand reputation. In all likelihood if a US listing is showing in the UK SERPs, then it’s unlikely to deliver a positive brand experience for the user and it is unlikely to convert. Equally, showing an English listing to someone whose first language is French would be jarring and will most likely lead to high bounce rates and frustrated searchers.
Using an industry standard tool like Search Metrics, you can toggle the visibility by country to see what kind of traffic a US version of a website would be driving in the UK. When you apply average order values and assumed conversion rates to this data, you can quickly calculate a potential bottom line impact (on top of the obvious negative brand reputation impact from serving a page that cannot adequately serve your user). Equally, if you undertake any kind of rank tracking, you could tailor the set up to track the rankings of a US domain in the UK search engines.
The mechanics of implementing correctly
Hreflang tags can be implemented in the sitemap or http header of each site on a domain, sub-domain or sub-directory level, but it’s important that each language version is on a separate URL and that all versions are indexable.
The example below focuses on a US site with UK, French and Spanish sub-directories for homepage URL. It should look like this:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="example.com" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="example.com/uk/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-fr" href="example.com/fr/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="es-es" href="example.com/es/" />
These elements indicate the targeted search engine and language for each specific URL.
The same hreflang structure should be followed for each individual URL you want to rank for internationally.
X Default option
Introduced in 2013, Google uses the “x-default hreflang attribute value as a signal that a respective page doesn’t target any specific language or locale, and is therefore the default page when no other page is better suited.”
Here’s a couple of likely scenarios where this option might be used:
- International homepages where users can select country / language.
- Essentially as a “Wildcard” where there isn’t a specific language page to support a search made from a specific locale. Say for example the site doesn’t have a Swedish translated version but the UK site can fulfil Europe-wide; it would make sense to deploy the UK site as the X-default
Common Mistakes in implementation
A common mistake that brands make is trying to rank the same page in different regions, in the same language, while having an incorrect or missing hreflang tag structure, for example:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-nz” href=”example.com/en” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”example.com/en” />
This will result to random international URL versions getting indexed and incorrectly ranking for numerous pages in regional search results.
Another common issue is where sites have implemented the hreflang tags, but included wrong country or language codes, for instance using the “en-UK” instead of “en-gb”. The easiest way to check for errors in language and country codes by using the Wikipedia codes listing or you can retrospectively check the accuracy of your implementation by using a variety of free tools just a Google search away like Flang.