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  • Writer's pictureUndertow Team

Your Guide To Hreflang Tags to Make the Most of Your International SEO

If your business is operational around the globe, you need to ensure that your digital marketing and your website are tailored to each country in which you operate. International SEO couldn’t be more important for any company operating overseas, so knowing how to maximize its potential is imperative.

This is where hreflang tags can prove to be indispensable. Here, we take a closer look at what exactly hreflang tags are, why they’re so helpful, and how to best use them to make the most of your international SEO efforts.

Maximizing International Success with Hreflang Tags: Your Comprehensive Guide

Hreflang Tags – An Overview

Hreflang attributes tell Google which country and language you’re targeting when creating a particular page. By doing this, the Google search engine is then able to deliver that page results when users who search in that particular country and language enter the appropriate search term. This is the nature of International SEO.

If that sounds confusing, let’s take a look at how it works in practice:

When using a hreflang tag to tell Google that you’re targeting the country Spain and the Spanish language on your website, it means whenever a user enters an appropriate search term in Spanish into Google, your hreflang tag will ensure they receive a search result for the Spanish version of your site and not the English or French version.

When you look at a web document’s page source, you’ll often notice that the very first tag looks like this:

<html lang=”en”>

This specifies that the page is using English text aimed at an audience that speaks English. Take a look at this page’s source code now by pressing F12 and see the tag for yourself.

If a site wants to target users who speak German and who are located in Germany, they can use a hreflang tag in their HTML header which looks like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”de-de” />

Of course, this looks quite complex, so let’s break it down so you can understand it more easily:

There are three key components in hreflang strings:

  • rel=alternate – this tag tells Google the web page isn’t the canonical version of a web page but an alternate one instead.

  • href= – this tag is telling Google the alternate webpage’s original URL.

  • hreflang= - this tag specifies the country and language the webpage is targeting.

Hreflang Tags symbol

Why Are Hreflang Tags So Helpful with International SEO?

Hreflang tags act like a signal for the Google search engine rather than a directive. So, in theory at least, even if a hreflang attribute isn’t used for your website, the search engine may potentially find your page in the correct language version.

It’s important to note, that this cannot be guaranteed and since Google explicitly suggests that you should always indicate your region-specific and language-specific pages by using hreflang tags, it’s a good idea to take that advice. As well as keeping websites well-organized and preventing alternate web pages from having to compete with each other there are other key benefits too.

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Other Key Benefits

You can use hreflang tags to give the content you produce for your brand an international SEO boost. As well as producing content in several languages, it’s also possible to target content specifically towards certain variants of one language, allowing you to effectively localize content for specific regions and languages.

With hreflang tags, you can localize your content for consumers around the world and, thus, gain access to international markets. Hreflang tags allow users the convenience of paying in their native currencies and seeing relevant offers and information relating to their own home country.

For this reason, hreflang tags are essential if you want your users to have an excellent experience. Since user experience is rapidly becoming a key website attribute that the Google algorithms assess, it’s certainly worth your while to take this information on board to maximize the reach of your website and content.

Content that has been specifically created for a particular target audience which is then delivered in that audience’s language resonates and engages better with the user, meeting their search expectations in a far more effective way. As a result, you’ll experience lower bounce rates and improve page rankings.

Prevent Duplicate Content

Another benefit of using hreflang tags is that they can prevent issues surrounding duplicate content. When there are pages containing identical content but in varying languages, it’s possible that Google may fail to understand, seeing it instead as duplicated content – something that can have a negative impact on page ranking.

Similar to canonical tags, using hreflang tags helps you avoid the penalties that you could incur for having duplicated content across your global websites. Duplicated content represents a serious search engine optimization problem for any brand that is doing international SEO. The outstanding value of being able to deliver content to audiences in their own languages with offers and products that are regionally targeted is impossible to overstate in terms both of driving revenue and improving user experience.

When using hreflang tags, website owners are able to ensure that they are creating specific web pages that are compliant with international tax codes and laws to prevent themselves from getting into legal trouble too.

Yet, while it’s clear that using hreflang tags is a good idea, they can be confusing and complex to implement. Fortunately, we’re here to make it easier for you to understand how to put these attributes into practice.

Hreflang Tags for Google

What Do Hreflang Tags Look Like?

Hreflang tags are snippets of code which tell the Google search engine which language it should use when it serves up its search engine results to audiences that are geo-targeted. Hreflang tags are typically referred to like this:

Rel = " alternate " hreflang = " x "

This snippet of code allows international websites to serve up results that are based on either the searcher’s location or their search language.

When Do I Use Hreflang Tags?

Knowing when Hreflang tags should be used is key if you’re going to maximize the benefits that they offer. You should always add a hreflang tag when you’re doing any international SEO if your website contains identical content but in multiple languages.

As an example, if you use “hreflang=”de” it means that you’re targeting a German audience rather than an audience in France, which would require the following tag – hreflang=”fr”.

You should also use hreflang tags if your site contains different content that appears in a single language. This is relevant, for example, if you have content in English on your website targeting an audience in America, the UK, and Australia, but you have specific offers that are in each local currency. In such cases your hreflang tags would need to look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href= hreflang=”en” />

But for an Australian audience, it would be ”en-au”, for an American audience ”en-us” or “en-gb” for a British audience. Eg

<link rel=”alternate” href= hreflang=””en-au” />

<link rel=”alternate” href= hreflang=””en-us” />

<link rel=”alternate” href= hreflang=””en-gb” />

It's important to be aware, though, that while Yandex and Google do use hreflang tags, Baidu and Bing don’t. There is no equivalent for Baidu and Bing, however, they support HTML content-language attributes as well as language meta-information tags.

website language selection

Are Canonicalization And Hreflang Tags The Same Thing?

Although canonicalization and hreflang tags achieve similar goals, they aren’t the same thing. While hreflang tags tell the search engine the correct page to serve to the user depending on their region or language, canonicalization tells Google which URL version to index if the different variants of a single URL contain identical content.

How Are Hreflang Tags Implemented?

There are three ways of using language annotations.

  • The first is to use an HTTP header. When you publish media which isn’t in HTML form such as PDFs, you can indicate a version in an alternate language in the header displaying the HTTP to let users know.

An example of this would be:

Link: <>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="en",<>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="fr"

  • The second is to use an HTML link element within the header. The link element is added to the HTML <head> section pointing to a particular language:

An example of this would be:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="" />

  • The third option is to use XML Sitemap. Rather than using an HTML markup, it’s possible to submit information about language versions within the sitemap.

Whichever method you adopt, you should always use hreflang tags on your website’s absolute URLs.

What Should I Use If I Don’t Have A Matched Language

In some instances, you may find that there is no region or language to match the browser setting that a searcher is using. In such cases, the tag to use is x-default in between the quotation marks for what the hreflang tag equals.

When you use this value, you can control your user’s experience as it allows you to direct them to the best page, for example, the homepage of your website where they can then choose the region or language of their choice.

international website

Fixing Hreflang Tag Errors to Improve International SEO

You should use the Search Console provided by Google, in particular the ‘International Targeting Report’ in order to monitor any hreflang errors and to select a country to prioritize for search results. There are several sections in this report including:

Language – this monitors the errors and usage of the hreflang tags across your site.

Country – this sets a country target across your whole site if you desire.

There are a number of 3rd party tools that you can use for fixing hreflang errors too.

A few other ways of fixing or preventing errors from arising include:

  • Updating the page links whenever a page is deleted.

  • Changing the hreflang URLs for the pages that are linked to any page that you’ve created redirects for.

Which Common Hreflang Mistakes Should I Avoid?

There are a few common errors that are made by programmers relating to the use of hreflang tags, with the biggest mistake being the failure to use a hreflang tag that is valid. Be sure to check for these:

  • Confirmation links that aren’t there – annotations need to follow a specific structure or else they will be ignored by Google, or not understood at all. If a single page links to another, that linking page must also link to the original.

  • Not using the right codes – always be sure to make use of the normal format (ISO 639-1). You can find a complete list online, and don’t forget you can’t just use a regional code – it must be paired with the correct code for the language.

  • Missing self-referencing attributes – if hreflang tags aren’t self-referential the page may not rank. It’s important to scan for this error and rectify it straight away.

  • Improper tags – improper values may be inputted into the HTML code due to human error or an issue with your hreflang generator tool. Fortunately, crawlers can spot this type of error and alert you so you can fix it quickly.

  • Linking to a redirected page – when websites grow and develop, redirects are often employed to fresh content in order to keep your website SEO-friendly. It’s essential, though, to ensure your hreflang tags are referencing canonical web pages. If the tag is referencing a webpage that has been redirected, Google simply ignores the whole hreflang tag, deciding instead which content to display. This can be fixed by adjusting the hreflang tag URL to reflect your new canonical web page.

Although hreflang tags may seem complex, they’re essential to get to grips with if you want to succeed in your international SEO efforts. Here at Undertow, we are specialists in multilingual SEO and SEM, and we offer services to boost your international ability to rank and be seen by traffic in your target country, including implementing hreflang tags throughout your site.

By following this guide, you should have some idea about how to get started with implementing hreflang tags yourself, or we are more than happy to help you achieve your goals. Just reach out to us and we’ll have your site fully optimized in your target language to the highest of standards.


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