What is Hreflang?

Hreflang is a crucial HTML attribute used in search engine optimization (SEO) to communicate with search engines about localized web page versions. If your website hosts content in multiple languages or is designed for different geographical regions, hreflang tags guide search engines towards the most suitable version of your page for each user based on their language or location.

Importance of Hreflang

Hreflang ensures that the right content reaches the right audience. By specifying different versions of your page, search engines can deliver the most appropriate content to users, enhancing their experience and reducing bounce rates. While Google can detect alternate language versions of your page, indicating language- or region-specific pages is recommended to ensure accuracy explicitly.

Implementing Hreflang

There are three methods to indicate multiple language/locale versions of a page to Google: HTML, HTTP Headers, and Sitemap. You can use hreflang within the HTML of a page by adding <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”lang_code” href=”url_of_page” /> elements in the page header. Here, lang_code is the supported language/region code targeted by this version of the page, and url_of_page is the fully-qualified URL for that page version.

Hreflang Best Practices

  • Complete Linking: Each language version of your page should list itself along with all other language versions. The tags will be ignored if two pages don’t point to each other.
  • Fully-Qualified URLs: Alternate URLs must be fully-qualified, including the transport method (HTTP/HTTPS).
  • Fallback Page: Add a fallback page for unmatched languages with the x-default value.

Hreflang Examples

Consider the Example.com website of Widgets, Inc, which serves users in the USA, Great Britain, and Germany. The URLs contain substantially the same content but with regional variations. The language-specific subdomains in these URLs (en, en-gb, en-us, de) are not used by Google to determine the target audience for the page; you must explicitly map the target audience using hreflang tags.

While I have provided an overview of hreflang and its best practices, it would be beneficial to delve deeper into specific scenarios and more complex implementations for a comprehensive understanding.

Advanced Hreflang Implementation

Implementing hreflang tags may seem straightforward, but the process can become complex when dealing with many languages or regions. Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain organized and accurate hreflang tags to avoid confusion.

Consider the scenario of an international business with content that varies by language and region. For instance, you might have English content targeted to the US, UK, and Australia. In this case, using hreflang tags can help you serve the correct version of the content to each region, enhancing user experience and SEO performance.

Let’s examine a more comprehensive example of hreflang implementation:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://en.example.com/page.html” hreflang=”en” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://en-gb.example.com/page.html” hreflang=”en-gb” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://en-us.example.com/page.html” hreflang=”en-us” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://de.example.com/page.html” hreflang=”de” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.example.com/” hreflang=”x-default” />

In this example, each webpage version has a unique URL and corresponding hreflang tag. The “en” tag indicates an available English version, while “en-gb” and “en-us” denote versions specifically tailored for the UK and the US. The “de” tag is for a German version of the site, and “x-default” serves as a catchall for users whose language preferences don’t match any of the specified options.

Common Mistakes and Solutions

Implementing hreflang can be tricky, and errors may inadvertently creep in. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid:

  • Incorrect Language or Country Codes: Always use the correct ISO codes for language and country. Incorrect codes can lead to inaccurate targeting.
  • Unreciprocated Links: If hreflang links are not reciprocal – i.e., if Page A points to Page B but Page B doesn’t point back to Page A – then search engines may ignore these tags. Make sure all hreflang links are bidirectional.
  • Missing Return Tags: Each page should include a reference to itself and references to other versions. Missing return tags can lead to hreflang tags being ignored.

Implementing hreflang correctly can have a significant positive impact on your website’s international SEO. You can improve user experience, increase engagement, and potentially boost conversions by serving the right content to the right audience.

When operating a multilingual or multinational website, hreflang is crucial to your SEO strategy. Implementing it correctly ensures your content reaches the right audience, improving user experience and search performance. With a comprehensive understanding of hreflang and its best practices, you can make your website more accessible to international audiences and improve your global SEO performance.

You might check my colleague Emre Ercan’s How To Develop Your International SEO Strategy article to learn more about hreflang tags and how to implement them on a multi-language website.