Why Hreflang Tags Are a Passport to Good International SEO
Going global with SEO is a complex endeavour. Whether you have multiple websites specific to various countries or are serving more than one country and/or language on a single site, there are a lot of moving parts. Each of these elements need to be in implemented in particular ways to ensure the most relevant content is found in search, based on your audience’s location or language. If you have an eCommerce website with multiple currencies to consider, this throws even more complexity into the mix.
One of the simplest, yet most effective, first steps to take is ensuring you have properly implemented hreflang tags on your website(s). Simply put, hreflang tags are tags within the code of a web page that tell search engines about existing versions of that page in other languages or with language variations. Hreflang tags were introduced by Google for this specific purpose. Therefore, rather than an HTML element that just happens to be useful to search engines, hreflang tags really are designed for international SEO.
Getting hreflang tags right is crucial for international SEO and provides a solid foundation for everything else you need to do to perform well in search across the globe. Getting them wrong, or leaving them out altogether, can lead to confusion about where and when a specific page is valid for search, or even what language the content is in.
While hreflang tags have been around since 2011, I still occasionally encounter misconceptions about when they should, and should not, be implemented and the best practices for ensuring they don’t contradict each other on related pages. It should also be noted that Bing does not use hreflang tags and relies on language meta tags to understand what locations and languages web pages are relevant for. I’ll get into language meta tags a bit later.
Setting up hreflang tags
This is what a typical hreflang tag looks like (this is from the UK home page of one of our clients, PureGym, who have websites in several countries):
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-CH” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss/fr”>
This tells search engines that there is a French-language alternative to this page on a site aimed at customers in Switzerland. The tag above is actually just part of a set of hreflang tags that appear on the UK home page:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-GB” href=”https://www.puregym.com/”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-CH” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss/en”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-CH” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss/fr”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-CH” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-DE” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”it-CH” href=”https://www.puregym.swiss/it”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”ar-SA” href=”https://ksa.puregymarabia.com/”>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-SA” href=”https://ksa.puregymarabia.com/en-gb”>
This tells search engines about each different version of the home page and the countries and/or languages they are pertinent to.
If you’re adding hreflang tags to your websites, you may also want to add an “x-default” tag, which tells search engines to treat a specific URL as the “standard” version for results outside of the regions served. It’s not mandatory but is particularly useful if you have a particular version of a page that you’d prefer to appear in international search results that you don’t have a dedicated page or website for.
Avoiding duplicate content issues
Note also that some of the alternative pages in the example above are also in English, which brings me to a misconception I sometimes come across with hreflang tags – that they will create duplicate content issues for pages that are presented in the same language.
Duplicate content can be an issue in SEO if not handled properly. Even massive search engines like Google have finite server space; it’s not in their interests to waste it by indexing two identical web pages. This means one or more “duplicate” pages might not appear in search results at all. If multiple pages are indexed, however, you then have a different problem, as these pages will compete with each other for the same keywords, so that none of them perform as strongly as a single page could. We’ve seen apprehension around duplicate content issues lead to people putting extra time and effort into writing completely original content for each localised version of a web page, or avoiding having more than one version of a page altogether.
But that’s one of the points of hreflang tags; they help to make sure search engines only display the “right” page for a searcher’s location or language in results, so that different versions aren’t fighting for the same real estate. This is great for your SEO, but also for your visitors, as they are automatically taken to the best version of your site for their needs.
Additionally, there may be differences even between versions of pages that are in the same language. Some words are spelled differently in US English than in UK English, for example. There will also be variations in currency, of course. Clearly signposting these subtle but crucial differences makes sure you’re providing the best possible experience for visitors, which will promote better SEO performance for all your web pages.
Google’s own recommendations on localising web pages include:
“If your content has small regional variations with similar content, in a single language. For example, you might have English-language content targeted to the US, GB, and Ireland.”
So, rather than presenting a duplicate content issue, hreflang tags help you to avoid one, while serving your users around the world the most appropriate content for their needs.
It’s worth noting, however, that Google do caution that pages with exactly the same content could be treated as duplicate even with the use of hreflang tags. While there are almost always some variances between localised sites (the currency used on eCommerce sites, for example, or any location-specific information), your pages may be treated as duplicate content if there are no discernible differences between them at all. While I’d still say it’s better to signpost language- and country-specific pages with hreflang tags than not, it’s worth considering whether any totally identical pages could be better served on a single URL.
I’ve also heard concerns that unscrupulous third parties could use hreflang tags to “hijack” content from a website. Firstly, I’ve been working in SEO since 2004 and have never seen this happen. It could happen, but even if it did, search engines are sophisticated enough at this point that they would be quick to recognise the lack of a legitimate relationship between the two pages. The intent of hreflang tags is to signpost a relationship between two very similar web pages that serve the same purpose. An hreflang tag pointing to a totally unrelated URL would at best be ignored, but more likely treated with a great deal of suspicion, by search engines.
HTML language tags
As well as hreflang tags, you should also specify what language your page’s content is written in using the HTML tag just under the DOCTYPE declaration at the start of the page’s code, e.g.:
As mentioned earlier, this is all Bing uses to determine a page’s language. It is also used by Google and other search engines so it’s important to use this; in fact, it’s best practice to have this tag on all web pages, even those that don’t have alternative-language equivalents.
Note that the HTML lang specifier only uses the relevant language code (e.g. “en”), whereas hreflang tags need both the language and country identifiers (e.g. “en-GB”). If you’re not sure of the precise IDs for a language or country, check this comprehensive list of language and country codes.
Hreflang tags really are the first bit you need to get right when you have multiple region-specific web pages, so I’m always a bit surprised when a client or a developer brings up something negative they’ve read about using them. If they’re implemented properly, which is a straightforward process, then they help to make sure search engine users find the right page for them wherever they happen to be based. What’s good for your users is also good for SEO, which is definitely good for your business.