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Hreflang Tags for International SEO Guide

Hreflang Tags for SEO: All Best Practices for Geotagging

James Gibbons
Hreflang Tags for SEO

Businesses operating globally have the challenge of tailoring their website content to users across various countries & languages. One critical tool in tackling multilingual SEO is the hreflang tag, a vital component of an SEO strategy.

Implementing hreflang correctly can mean the difference between reaching your target audience or getting lost in the internet abyss. While hreflang tags might appear simple, the truth is that many people struggle with when and how to implement them. This struggle can cost you the opportunity to connect with your intended audience.

In this blog, we will make hreflang tags easy for you, simplifying its implementation to make your website truly international. Prepare to embark on a journey to take your SEO strategy to new, globally competitive heights.

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What is Hreflang?

Hreflang, short for "hypertext reference language," is an HTML attribute used to specify the language & geographical targeting of a webpage. It's a way to tell search engines which language you use on a specific page.

Hreflang tags allow search engines to serve the most appropriate version of your pages to users based on their language or geographic location.

Hreflang tags help avoid confusion between pages with similar content targeted to different geographical locations & languages.

The Hreflang tag should be used whenever you have multiple versions of the same page in different languages or for different regions. It could include variations like English for the US (en-us), English for the UK (en-uk), Spanish for Spain (es-es), and so on.

Add hreflang tags on each version of your page, not just on the homepage or the main language page(s).

All major search engines support hreflang, including Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, and Baidu. However, there are a few that don't. Irrespective, this attribute still benefits your website's visibility & accessibility.

Why is Hreflang Important for SEO?

1. Improved Targeting: Hreflang enables businesses to target specific regions more effectively. It enhances visibility among intended audiences & increases potential conversions.

2. Enhanced User Experience: By directing users to content in their preferred language, Hreflang improves the user experience, a crucial SEO factor. This reduction in language-based friction results in users spending more time on your site, improving your SERP rankings.

3. Prevention of Duplicate Content: Hreflang helps avoid potential penalties for duplicate content. Google identifies that your content serves different regions and thus doesn't consider it as duplicated text.

4. Reduces Bounce Rate: If users are directed to your content in a language they don't understand, they're likely to leave. It increases your bounce rate, which negatively affects SEO. Hreflang helps to prevent this, guiding users to the appropriate page and thus reducing the bounce rate.

What are Some Common Misconceptions About Hreflang

Here are some common misconceptions that tend to cloud the understanding of hreflang:

1. Hreflang isn't a ranking factor but a signal to guide search engines in serving the correct language or regional URL.

2. Merely adding hreflang doesn’t optimize your site for other regions. Localized content, structured websites, local backlinks, and server hosting are significant.

3. Hreflang isn't just about language; it's also about location. The tag should also reflect regional variations in language for precise targeting.

4. Hreflang isn't a one-time task. It needs regular check-ups, especially for websites that frequently update content or expand regions.

Hreflang and HTML Lang: What's the Difference

Hreflang tags & HTML lang are both used to optimize content in multiple languages, but they have some differences. Here is how hreflang & HTML lang differ:

Aspect Hreflang Tags HTML Lang Tags
Purpose Specifies the language and regional targeting of a URL to search engines. Specifies the default language of the web page content.
Syntax link rel="alternate" hreflang="x" href="https://example.com/x/page" Syntax: html lang="en"
Placement Hreflang tags are placed in the web page's header, HTTP header, or XML sitemap. HTML Lang is placed in the opening HTML tag for a webpage.
Handling Duplicate Content Helps avoid duplicate content issues by signaling to search engines which page is intended for specific languages and locations. Doesn't directly address duplicate content. Canonical tags are typically used for this purpose.
Significance It is preferred by Google for international SEO, as it provides precise language and geo-targeting. Google recognizes HTML lang tags but considers hreflang tags more effective for multilingual and multinational websites.

Google & Hreflang Tags

When Google crawls your page, it identifies the hreflang tag and deciphers the language and geographical targeting of the content. It enables Google to determine the appropriate page version to display based on the user's language preference and region.

If a user from Spain searches for your website, Google will display the Spanish version of the page, assuming it is correctly implemented. It ensures your content is accessed and comprehended by the widest possible audience, enhancing user experience.

How Does Hreflang Work?

When a search engine like Google crawls your site, it looks for the hreflang attribute in the HTML. This attribute tells Google the language & geo-targeting for that particular page. It assists search engines in serving the right version of your site to users.

Suppose you own an e-commerce website that sells handmade goods. Your website is available in English and German.

Using the hreflang tag, you would tell search engines something like: "Here is the English version of my website for US visitors, and here is the German version for German visitors."

You would code this for the English version using: hreflang="en-US" and for the German version: hreflang="de-DE."

This way, when a user in Germany searches for handmade goods, Google understands that it should present them with the German version of your website or vice-versa.

All versions of your site with hreflang tags should return 200 status codes and should not redirect. Google needs to be able to crawl and index all versions.

However, it's important to remember that implementing hreflang can be a bit tricky and technical.

Here are some top things to remember:

1. The syntax must be exact, and any mistakes can potentially lead to more harm than good.

2. You need to know the ISO 639-1 format for language codes and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for country codes.

3. Remember to include a return link to each version of your pages, which means if Page A links to Page B, then Page B must link back to Page A.

How Does Hreflang Attribute Look Like?

When it comes to the actual syntax or code of the hreflang attribute, it typically looks like this:

Hreflang Attribute Syntax
Hreflang Attribute Syntax

Here's a breakdown of the components:

1. rel="alternate": This attribute informs the search engine that the link represents an alternate page version.

2. hreflang="language-region": Here, you specify the language and regional targeting. For language, you use a two-letter language code (e.g., "en" for English), and for regional targeting, a two-letter region code (e.g., "US" for the United States or "ES" for Spain).

3. href="URL": This is where you insert the URL of the alternate version of your page, tailored to the specified language & region.

Hreflang attributes can be added in the HTTP header, within the HTML of a page, or in your XML sitemap. Decide which method serves your website's structure best. Let us learn how to implement hreflang tags in the next section.

How to Implement Hreflang Tags

Steps to Implement Hreflang Tags
Steps to Implement Hreflang Tags

1. Content Mapping and Planning

Before diving into the technical aspects, start with a comprehensive site audit. Map out where you've already implemented hreflang tags on your website. Include existing content and any translated pages.

Analyze your website's analytics to gain insights into your existing audience. Determine where they are coming from and their language preferences. This data will guide your implementation strategy and help you cater to your current user base.

Consider whether translating your entire site is necessary. Sometimes, localizing specific sections like the homepage, contact information, and footer may suffice. It saves you time and resources.

2. Understanding Language and Country Codes

Choosing the correct language and country codes is necessary for hreflang implementation.

While language codes alone are acceptable, incorporating country or regional codes enhances clarity. It allows search engines to discern both language and geographical targeting.

For example, differentiating between British and American English can be crucial for your content strategy. Ensure you use standardized language and country codes for consistency.

3. Different Hreflang Tags

To maximize the effectiveness of hreflang tags, try to establish the correct relationships between them. It involves understanding different hreflang tags:

Self-referencing Hreflang Tags

Self-referencing hreflang tags, as the name suggests, point to the current page itself. They serve as a declaration of the page's language and location. It informs search engines that this is the primary version of the content for the specified language & region.

Example for a page in English: https://www.example.com/en/page

Without this tag, Google may incorrectly attribute your content to the wrong language or geographic region, affecting your SEO performance negatively.

Bidirectional Tags

Bidirectional hreflang tags establish a two-way relationship between different language versions of the same page. They explicitly indicate that the current page is an alternate version of another page and vice versa.

1. Example on the English page: https://www.example.com/en/page

2. Example on the Spanish page: https://www.example.com/es/page

Bidirectional hreflang tag creates a network of interconnected pages, enhancing understanding of the website's multilingual structure. This type of reciprocal referencing communicates to search engines that these pages are different language or regional versions of the same content.

Therefore, it ensures that each version reaches the appropriate audience, reducing the likelihood of cross-contamination in search results.

X-default Tag

This tag is essentially a fail-safe mechanism. It tells search engines which website version to show when the user’s language preference doesn’t match any of the page's available languages.

Example: https://www.example.com/default/

It's like a knight in shining armor, ensuring that all users can still access your website, regardless of their language preference. It provides a better user experience & potentially reduces bounce rates.

Using Different Hreflang Types: Example

Let's consider a website with pages in English and Spanish:

Example of Different Types of Hreflang Tags
Example of Different Types of Hreflang Tags

In this example:

1. The English page has self-referencing tags for English and bidirectional tags for the Spanish page.

2. The Spanish page has self-referencing tags for Spanish and bidirectional tags for the English page.

3. The X-default tag is optional and is used if there's a default page for users with unspecified language or regional preferences.

This implementation helps search engines understand the relationships between different language versions of your content, improving the accuracy of search results for users in different regions and languages.

4. Choose a Hreflang Tag Implementation Method

Choosing the right implementation method ensures proper communication of language & regional variations to search engines. It enhances user experience & boosts SEO performance. Here are the methods to implement hreflang tags:

1. HTML in Link Elements: This method involves embedding hreflang annotations directly into the HTML code within the head section of your page. It is an effective way to provide clear language targeting for your content. However, it can become cumbersome, especially for larger websites.

HTML in Link Elements
HTML in Link Elements Example

2. HTTP Headers: You can implement hreflang tags in the HTTP headers of your web pages. This method is particularly useful when you have many pages and want to centralize the information. You can also add hreflang tag to HTTP header for non-HTML files such as PDFs.

This method requires server-side modifications (code changes in your PHP file or similar) to include the hreflang tag in the response.

HTTP Headers Example
HTTP Headers Example

   1. In this case, false is used, indicating that the new header should be added without replacing any existing header with the same name. This is often the desired behavior for adding multiple headers of the same type.

    2. If you were to set it to true, it would replace any existing Link header with the new one. Generally, you want to use false when you're adding multiple headers of the same type, as is common with the Link header in the context of hreflang implementations.

3. XML Sitemap Markup: In this method, hreflang tag is incorporated into your XML sitemap, acting as a guide to the different language versions of your site. This method is particularly useful for large multilingual websites, offering a structured way to provide instructions to search engines.

XML Sitemap Markup
XML Sitemap Markup

All these methods ensure that content reaches the appropriate audience, enhancing user experience and ease of management. Determining which of these methods is the best for your website depends on the complexity of your website and your technical proficiency.

Semi-Automating Hreflang Tags Implementation

Implementing hreflang tags manually can be time-consuming and error-prone, especially for large websites. Semi-automating hreflang tags is a balanced approach, ideal for large websites for SEO optimization. This blend of automation and human oversight minimizes errors & saves time.

You can implement this via a content management system (CMS) plugin or extension, such as those provided by WordPress or Magento. These tools auto-generate hreflang tags, streamlining your workflow.

An online generator tool is another effective method. You input every site version's URL, language, and country in this method to produce the necessary tags. An XML sitemap can be used to generate expansive sites, ensuring consistency in your hreflang tags.

Finding & Fixing Hreflang Tags Issues

As you know, implementing hreflang tags manually can be complex & can lead to errors. Thus, it's important to know how to identify & rectify issues effectively. Let us understand this in the next section:

How to Test and Validate Hreflang Tags?

Inspect your website's source code manually to verify the correct implementation of hreflang tags. Look for the ‘link’ tag containing ‘hreflang’ attribute in the head section of your HTML.

Alternatively, use the Inspect Element function on your browser (right-click and select 'Inspect' in Chrome). Navigate to the HTML Head section and search for 'hreflang'. The tag should be directly linked to the alternative language page URL & identify the language using a language-country code.

What Tools Can I Use for Testing and Validating Hreflang Tags?

Several tools can make the testing and validation process more efficient:

1. Google Search Console: GSC provides insights into how Googlebots crawl & index your web pages. Its URL Inspection tool and Coverage Report enables you to view the detailed information on any indexing errors caused by hreflang tags.

2. Using a Browser Extension: Browser extensions can test and validate hreflang tags. These extensions typically work by highlighting hreflang tags on your visited pages. Some popular hreflang browser extensions include Hreflang Checker for Chrome, Hreflang Validator for Firefox, etc.

3. Using a Third-Party Hreflang Testing Tool: These third-party tools crawl your website & check for common hreflang errors. Some popular hreflang testing tools include hreflang Tags Tester by Technical SEO, Hreflang Validator by Sistrix, etc.

Best Practices for Error-Free Hreflang Tag

When implemented correctly, hreflang tags can improve your site's user experience & boost your SEO performance. However, any errors in your hreflang implementation could result in search engines not understanding your intended targeting. Here are some best practices for error-free hreflang tag implementation:

Using the Correct Hreflang Format

Ensure that you are using the correct hreflang format. It means adhering to the standard ISO 639-1 for language codes and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for country codes. It's crucial because incorrect or non-standard codes can result in your tags being ignored by search engines. It ensures your multilingual content will be correctly indexed and served to the right audience.

Including Hreflang Tags on all Relevant Pages

Ensure that hreflang tags are included on all relevant pages of your website. It signals to search engines the page's intended language and geographical targeting.

Simply add an hreflang tag to the header section of each relevant webpage. It ensures that users are directed to the most relevant version of your page based on their location and language preferences, increasing user satisfaction and engagement.

Using Bidirectional Hreflang Tags

Bidirectional hreflang tags establish a reciprocal relationship between two pages in different languages or regions. For instance, if your English page for "red shoes" has a hreflang tag pointing to the Spanish page for "zapatos rojos" the Spanish page should also have a hreflang tag pointing back to the English page.

This provides a clear signal to the search engines about the relationship between the multiple versions of the site. It will enhance search engine indexing as all versions of your web pages will be correctly identified and linked.

Implementing Hreflang tags in your XML sitemap

This is especially useful for large websites with various language versions, as it can get overwhelming to implement hreflang tags on each page manually. By adding these tags to your XML sitemap, search engines can easily understand the different versions of your content. It can be performed by:

1. Using an XML sitemap generator that supports hreflang tags.

2. Including hreflang annotations for every URL in your sitemap.

3. Submitting the updated sitemap to Google Search Console for crawlability.

It streamlines the management of hreflang tags across a large website, leading to improved efficiency & accuracy in search engine indexing.

Use Canonical Tags in Conjunction with Hreflang Tags

A canonical tag (rel=canonical) tells search engines that a specific URL represents the master copy of a page. When used with hreflang tags, it helps to ensure that the correct language version of the page is displayed to users.

This practice helps search engines to accurately index and rank the correct versions of your pages, improving your site's international SEO performance.

Start Implementing Hreflang Tags for Enhanced SEO

Implementing hreflang tags is an essential part of international SEO. These tags help ensure that users are seeing the correct version of your website or web page. It can improve your search engine ranking, increase international traffic, and enhance the user experience.

Incorrect hreflang tags implementation can cause search engines to show users the wrong version of your site. By following the tips and best practices for implementing hreflang tags, you can take your international SEO to the next level and reach a wider audience.

Once the correct implementation of hreflang tags is ensured, the next step is to monitor the performance of your website. Tracking and evaluating the effectiveness of your SEO efforts is crucial to gauge the progress and success of your strategy. However, manually analyzing each page can be time-consuming. That's where Quattr steps in.

By using Quattr, you can monitor your website's performance. It automatically identifies the pages which has the highest potential to attract traffic. It ensures your strategies are optimally effective for your global audience.

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Hreflang Tags for SEO FAQs

Can I use Hreflang tags for multilingual websites targeting the same country?

You can use hreflang tags for multilingual websites targeting the same country. It will aid search engines in directing users to the content in their preferred language, providing an enhanced user experience and SEO.

Can I use multiple Hreflang attributes for one page?

Using multiple hreflang attributes for one page is possible and useful in certain situations. However, it is generally discouraged, as it can confuse search engines. Stick to a single, well-structured Hreflang implementation for optimal SEO results.

Should you use Hreflang tags along with canonical tags?

Hreflang tags and canonical tags serve different purposes. While they can be used together, it's crucial to understand when and why. Hreflang is for language and regional targeting, while canonical tags indicate the preferred version of a page. Use them together only when appropriate, ensuring they align with your SEO strategy.

About The Author

James Gibbons

James Gibbons is the Senior Customer Success Manager at Quattr. He has 10 years of experience in SEO and has worked with multiple agencies, brands, and B2B companies. He has helped clients scale organic and paid search presence to find hidden growth opportunities. James writes about all aspects of SEO: on-page, off-page, and technical SEO.

About Quattr

Quattr is an innovative and fast-growing venture-backed company based in Palo Alto, California USA. We are a Delaware corporation that has raised over $7M in venture capital. Quattr's AI-first platform evaluates like search engines to find opportunities across content, experience, and discoverability. A team of growth concierge analyze your data and recommends the top improvements to make for faster organic traffic growth. Growth-driven brands trust Quattr and are seeing sustained traffic growth.

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