Hreflang tags: How to serve correctly regionalized content

Hreflang tags: How to serve correctly regionalized content

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There is little that’s more technical than international and multilanguage search engine optimization (SEO). It’s hard to implement and easy to get things wrong, which can lead you into a world of technical SEO problems.

There are a lot of moving parts when considering how to target readers around the globe. This article is the last of three I’ve written covering the options for international SEO and multilingual SEO. Today, I’ll cover how to tie everything together using the hreflang tag and how it can be used to help search engines understand language and regional content variations.

Let’s start with a quick recap of international and multilingual SEO.

1. International SEO

In the first part of this series, we looked at international SEO and the many ways to rank content internationally. We covered the traditional approach using ccTLDs, geotargeting using subdirectories and subdomains, and we looked at ways that content can rank internationally without these more technical approaches.

The right approach is always the one that is right for your current situation and objectives. And often, where content is being promoted with SEO and used for lead generation, you can avoid these more technically challenging approaches to ranking internationally.

2. Multilingual SEO

Where you have users speaking various languages, things can get a little more complicated. And there is a range of typical scenarios that we see with multilingual SEO. The most common situations are:

  • Multiple languages serving the same country.
  • Multiple languages serving no specific country.
  • Multiple languages serving multiple countries.

The correct multilingual SEO strategy here typically builds on your international SEO strategy and requires a detailed understanding of your target audience. Only once this clarity is achieved can you look at what the best options are.

3. Hreflang tags

Once you have your SEO ducks in a row with regard to your international and multilingual SEO strategy, you can then look at using hreflang tags to help the search engine understand which version of the content should be shown for a given user.

As a simple example, let’s consider a site that has content for the UK, Australia and the US.

This content is almost identical, yet there are subtle differences that relate to each regionalized set of content. Without hreflang, we end up with three versions of the same content and the potential for duplicate SEO issues.

Hreflang in a nutshell

When there are language variations of a page, each page has a list of alternative uniform resource locators (URLs). So each page will list all alternatives for different languages and/or regions.

From a ranking perspective, if the UK version of an English page ranks, the search engine checks the hreflang tags for this page, and if a more suitable version exists, then that page is returned. So, where the user was in the US, they will see the en-us version of the page. This is determined by the language setting and priority in the user’s browser.

Approach

There are multiple ways in which hreflang can be implemented:

  • HTTP headers — hreflang code can be implemented in HTTP headers.
  • HTML — hreflang code in the section of your HTML.
  • XML Sitemap — language and region details are detailed in the XML sitemap.

There are pros and cons to each approach, and, as ever, the correct approach depends upon your unique situation.

The hypertext markup language (HTML) head approach is often an easy place to start, yet it won’t work for non-HTML files like portable document formats (PDFs).

With the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) headers and HTML approach, the tags have to be generated for each page request. If you have multiple pages, this can introduce some overhead (which we don’t really want in this mobile-driven, speed-sensitive SEO environment).

The eXtensible markup language (XML) approach is often suitable for larger sites or where there are multiple languages and regional variations, as there is no need to make changes to each and every page and no additional server overhead to generate the tags for each page. This means that there is no hosting or file size overhead and a separation between the XML hreflang optimization and the website.

There is no right or wrong here; the right approach is the one that tailored to your unique situation.

Do it once and do it right

One key piece of advice here is to just use one of these approaches. If you use multiple approaches, you can end up with conflicting results which, if they conflict, will cause problems.

Multiple languages, no region

The first implementation details simply with language variations and the following example shows English, French and German.

Multiple languages and regions

The more complex implementation considers language and region. In this example, we have English language variations for the UK, the US Australia, and then a best-practice generic English version for English-speaking users that fall outside of these categories.

Summary

International and multilingual SEO is complicated, and adding hreflang implementation is an additional layer of complexity. Understanding the different approaches so you can determine the best approach is critical to implementing your international SEO strategy successfully.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Marcus Miller is an experienced SEO and PPC consultant based in Birmingham, UK. Marcus focuses on strategy, audits, local SEO, technical SEO, PPC and just generally helping businesses dominate search and social. Marcus is managing director of the UK SEO and digital marketing company

Bowler Hat

and also runs

wArmour aka WordPress Armour

which focuses on helping WordPress owners get their security, SEO and site maintenance dialled in without breaking the bank.

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