This strange-sounding word comes with some major international SEO benefits.
In this article, I’ll cover what a hreflang tag is, why you might need it, and how to correctly add hreflang tags to your site.
What You’ll Learn:
- What hreflang tags are
- How hreflang tags affect SEO
- When you should use hreflang tags
- How to add hreflang tags to your site
- Google’s guidelines on hreflang tags
- How to audit your hreflang tags
One of the biggest challenges international SEOs deal with is making sure that their content reaches the appropriate search audience–in their preferred language.
That’s where hreflang tags come in.
Hreflang tags let search engines know which version of your webpages to serve your audience, depending on where they live and what language they speak.
The idea is if you have a searcher that is French and the top-ranking page is in English, you want them to display the French version.
Hreflang tags essentially override rankings so that searchers can access the most relevant content, without having to search your site for the right language. The problem is, SEOs seem to have a considerable amount of trouble when it comes to implementing hreflang correctly.
What, Exactly, is Hreflang?
Hreflang tags are an HTML markup that can be applied to sites with similar content but cater to different regions or languages.
The hreflang is primarily used to identify the language used on a particular page using the ISO 639-1 format, which is essentially a two-digit country code for the internet.
So, if you cater to a global audience, using a hreflang tag will direct users in the US to the English page, while users in Spain would be directed to a Spanish language page.
For example, if I’m Googling Adidas in the US, this is the page that pops up at the top of the search results:
But if I’m Googling it in Spain, the top result we’ll take me here:
You’ll also have the option to include a regional markup to differentiate between same-language URLs targeting different global audiences. This is accomplished using the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format.
Sounds like something straight out of Star Wars, right? I know, but it’s a bit simpler than it sounds.
For example, a website owner might create an en-us for an English and the United States page and an en-au for an English and Australia page.
Why, you ask? Because even though the countries speak the same language, they will likely use a different currency. Adding a hreflang tag will ensure that the right information is displayed to the right audience.
Hreflang tags are used primarily by websites that cater to different markets, and most often, they’re used to accomplish the following:
- To ensure regional variations such as en-gb and en-us are shown based on location.
- To differentiate between content written in multiple languages—think en, de, and fr.
- To markup websites with both regional variations and language variations.
You’ve probably visited an e-commerce site at some point, and seen a pop-up asking you to confirm your location. This gets down to the whole purpose of hreflang tags, which allow brands to deliver relevant pricing information, products, and shipping details to the visitor.
Hreflang and SEO
While the key benefit of hreflang tags is delivering content to users in their native language, adding this markup brings a few second-hand SEO benefits to the mix as well.
No, adding hreflang tags won’t directly increase the amount of traffic to your site. However, by delivering relevant content to your international visitors, you’ll likely see fewer bounces and more conversions.
Without an hreflang tag, Google might automatically display an English page to a German user who can’t read the content. Or, someone in the UK might land on a page that displays pricing information in US currency.
It’s the same idea behind matching intent in a PPC ad and its corresponding landing page.
While this won’t directly tank your rankings, it’s important to note that over time, delivering irrelevant content will have a negative impact on conversions and make people click away in a hurry rather than search for the correct language option.
Hreflang also doesn’t override geo-ranking factors. Meaning, if you’re in position zero in the US for “green sofa beds” it doesn’t mean that you’ll maintain that top spot across the pond.
Hreflang Tags Address Duplicate Content
Hreflang tags also help you avoid duplicate content issues.
For example, if you post the same content on multiple URLs, a hreflang prevents Google from flagging, say, English content for US readers and its Australian counterpart.
In this case, the pages might be nearly identical, save for the local currency and some spelling differences.
The hreflang gives Google a heads up, acknowledging the relationship between the two pages.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that hreflang isn’t a complete fix for duplicate content issues.
It doesn’t guarantee that one version of that page will rank because you’ve added the hreflang tag.
As is the case in traditional SEO, if there are exact copies or a lot of overlapping content, Google will choose which version to rank.
Hreflang and Canonicalization
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, canonicalization tags tell search engines which version of a URL is the original or dominant version.
The purpose is to help website owners avoid duplicate content issues by acknowledging the relationship between similar content.
While it sounds similar to how hreflang works, they’re not the same thing.
Hreflang, tells the search engine which page to display based on language or region. While you can technically apply canonical tags across country or language, Google advises against it.
Applying canonical tags on a global level will remove your local language pages, which can prevent users from making purchases in that local market.
For instance, if you’re a US company and have UK versions of your pages, a canonical tag will remove the UK pages, directing that local audience to the US pages tagged as original content. And while that UK customer may be able to make purchases from your site, it might not be clear whether you’ll ship to their address.
So, When Should You Add Hreflang to Your Website?
If you have multiple versions of your website based on language or region, it’s time to start thinking about hreflang tags.
Before you get started, you’ll want to map out any regional or language versions of your website so you can stay organized from the get-go.
- Website versions: Website versions can exist in different subdirectories on the same domain, within their own subdomain, or on separate domains altogether.
- Language: Per Google specifications, versions of a website can be assigned one language. Make sure you don’t mix and match languages within any of your websites.
- Regions: Websites can target a country or region. This designation applies when you have multiple regions that speak the same language but have differences when it comes to currency, culture, or content.
Before Adding Tags, Tailor the Experience to Your Audience
Before you add hreflang tags to your website, you’ll want to make sure that all pages from the navigation to your product pages, as well as any support pages and FAQs, are written in the language you’re targeting.
It’s also worth pointing out that a translation might not be enough.
Just as you would in your native language, make sure that your content speaks to your target personas, accounting for things like cultural differences, local preferences, and other on-page components unique to each country.
Implementing Hreflang Tags on your Site
Adding hreflang tags to your site is as simple as finding the language and region codes you’d like to add and then pasting them into the backend of your site.
There are three ways that you can add hreflang tags to your website, each with its own pros, cons, and use cases.
Here’s a quick rundown of each method and when you might choose one over another.
HTML Hreflang Link Elements
The first method is HTML hreflang link elements. This is probably the easiest way to add tags to your website. All you need to do is paste in any appropriate hreflang tags to the <head> tag of your web page.
Every page variation must link to every other page variation, so if you’re dealing in 10 languages, these attributes can weigh your site down.
As such, this markup is not the best choice for large sites.
This approach is for non-HTML pages like PDFs. Because there’s no HTML, you’ll instead add the markup to the page’s HTTP header or directly to the sitemap.
The downside of using too many HTTP headers is a lot like the problem you’ll see with HTML link elements. Meaning, if you have a larger site or a presence in multiple countries, that header space will begin to get a bit top-heavy.
The third way you can add hreflang tags to your site is by XML sitemap markup. This method uses the xhtml: link attribute in XML sitemaps, which adds the annotation to every URL.
It’s similar to the first method we mentioned, but it’s a bit more complicated because you need to add every language variant to every URL in your sitemap. Which, let’s face it, can be a bit of a pain.
Adding hreflang tags to your site map isn’t a huge chore if you only have one page with one alternative language—however, if you’re a global retailer with thousands of pages, this is a major undertaking.
Still, adding annotations to your XML sitemap comes with a whole host of benefits.
For one, adding alternate URLs to your sitemap allows them to get found faster. XML tagging won’t slow down your site like the other methods. Site speed has a direct connection to sales and conversions and every second counts.
Hreflang Google Guidelines
Per Google’s developer blog, you’ll need to make sure to keep the following rules in mind as you add hreflang tags to your website.
- Self Links are a Must: Each version must list both itself and any other language versions containing the same content.
- Consider Using a Catchall URL: If you have several alternate URLs that target users that speak the same language in different parts of the world, you may want to also provide a catchall URL for users in unspecified regions. Google points toward this example: if you have multiple English URLs for speakers in Canada, the UK, and Australia, you may also want to provide a generic English page for searchers in all English-speaking countries.
- Return Links are Required: Hreflang tags are bidirectional. You’ll need to make sure that any time you add a tag, it points back at another page. For example, if you add a hreflang tag to an English page pointing to the Spanish variant, the Spanish version must point back to the English page. Skip out on return links and Google’s crawlers will ignore the tags. The reason this requirement exists is to prove that you have control over every version of your site.
- You Can Skip a Bidirectional Link Here and There: If it becomes a burden to maintain the full set of bidirectional links for every language, you can skip some languages on some pages. While they aren’t super specific about a number, Google states that they will process those pages that point to each other. They also recommend that you link any new languages bi-directionally to its counterpart in the originating language. Meaning, if your site was originally created in US English and you recently added Spanish pages, you’ll want to link back to the US pages, as these will likely have the highest domain authority.
- Use the X-Default as Your Generic International Landing Page: The x-default functions as an international landing page. This hreflang value lets search engines know which page to serve searchers if they speak a language that your site doesn’t have covered.
How to Audit Your Hreflang Efforts
Before resorting to anything drastic, check Google Analytics to see how (and honestly, if) your international traffic is making its way to your site.
Head over to Google Analytics and check the location report. This allows you to see which countries are bringing in the most traffic, and it’s a good place to start looking if you’re concerned that your tags aren’t working.
To access this report, navigate to Audience > Demographics > Location.
Here, you’ll be able to see which landing pages and keywords are bringing new visitors to your site, and can review these numbers in comparison to your pre-hreflang performance.
You can also do the same for languages by navigating to Audience > Demographics > Language.
Tools like SEMRush and Search Metrics can also be used to review your international SERP performance for additional insights.
Consult Your GSC International Targeting Report
You can debug any hreflang errors from your Google Search Console International Targeting Report. This report is designed to uncover any hreflang errors found in your sitemap.
Before running a report, make sure that enough time has passed to ensure that Google has crawled your sitemap.
Navigate to the language tab to see if the crawl picked up on any errors–be it in the sitemap, HTTP headers, or page-level tags.
Additionally, there are several third-party tools that can help you detect any additional errors associated with your hreflang tagging.
Hreflang may be easy to understand, but it takes some serious SEO know-how, combined with careful monitoring to implement it correctly.
Adding tags can get messy fast and international SEOs need to keep their audience in mind just as they would in their home country.
In the end, hreflang tagging is a worthwhile effort, so long as you take extra care to ensure that international users receive an optimized experience that considers UI, UX, and more alongside cultural preferences.