Implementing the Hreflang Tag & Geo-Targeting Recommendations

This article aims to outline the ideal steps to ensure that each of the country/language specific websites are correctly geo-targeted without causing any major disruptions for Googlebot.

A correct implementation is imperative to ensure that users are correctly redirected to their specific website without impacting the way the website is indexed. Additionally, this will ensure that the correct country specific pages are indexed in the correct Google engines which improve both the user experience and click-through rates.

We highly recommend that the performance of each countries organic search rankings (including the ranking URLs) are tracked prior to implementation, and for a 6 week period post implementation (weekly), across a select number of key territories and keywords. This will allow any changes in performance to be effectively benchmarked and immediately highlight if any changes require rolling back. This is a process which searchandengage.com can support with, if required.

What is the Hreflang Tag & why it’s important

The Hreflang tag helps communicate to Google’s search algorithms which version of the website should be shown in which country in order for Google to rank pages accurately. This geo-targeting technique was developed by Google in an attempt to provide the best possible relevance by targeting multi-lingual users who speak different languages within the same country and to multi-regional users in different countries. It’s important that each language version is on a separate URL and that Googlebot is able to crawl all versions.

International Section & Country Navigation

To eliminate any potential confusion with the geo-targeting recommendations, we need to make sure a handful of additional steps are implemented.

  • Create an International Folder – To prevent the root level content being seen as the dominant English speaking content it is recommended that all this content is moved from the root of the website to an international sub-folder (i.e. /int/). This would then become the default section for any users who do not have a country specific brand website / language.
  • Redirect Old Root Level URLs – As the root URLs will have been removed it is highly recommended that any old URLs (which now reside at /int/) are 301 redirected. Our recommendation would be to redirect these to the respective URL in the /us/ folder to ensure any existing authority is maximised.
  • Implement Global Splash Page – As no physical website will reside at the root level it is recommended that you amend the homepage to become a country selector splash page. This would house links to each of your brands websites / languages (exampled below).

website language selection example

  • Country Switcher Amends (optional) – As the homepage now suffices as a country switching mechanism it is recommended that the country switcher on each specific page’s code is removed and replaced with a link to the root.  This will support your brands search engine optimisation goals by reducing the number of links per page and the overall size of each pages code.

Hreflang & XML Sitemaps

We highly recommend the global implementation of geo-specific coding to support Google in understanding which domains and URLs should rank for each specific country. This mitigates the need to rewrite any onsite content to prevent legitimate duplicate content issues.

Google now supports two methods of the hreflang implementation, either through the integration of HTML attributes within the website <head> code or by creating hreflang compliant XML sitemaps.

Although both methods can be implemented concurrently without causing issues, our preferred method is hreflang compliant XML sitemaps, as this is typically easier to implement, update and debug potential issues. This is also mitigates the majority of implementation restrictions, therefore some businesses may find it simpler to integrate.

Regional Hreflang XML Sitemaps

We recommend producing an optimised global XML sitemaps for each country specific website in order to:

  • Distribute the flow of brand authority
  • Provide Google with supporting target country data
  • Mitigate duplicate content issues

Obviously creating a file of this magnitude, for every single URL, is a relatively laborious process but there are plenty of tools out there to support the automatic generation of XML sitemaps (with hreflang integration) for a full website, assuming that a certain level of URL information can be provided in a suitable format.

The following code outlines an example of how the XML sitemap format would look. Please note that these are example formats and do not include every country target.

Supporting Information:

Partial exampling how searchandengage.com/us/ sitemap would look:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<urlset xmlns=”http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9″
xmlns:xhtml=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml”>
<url>
<loc>http://www.searchandengage.com/us/</loc>
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/int/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-US”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/us/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-CA”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/us/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-IE”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-GB”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.co.uk” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-CO”
href=”http://www.searchandengage-la.com/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-MX”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com.mx/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-BO”
href=”http://www.searchandengage-la.com/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”pt-BR”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com.br/” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”pt-PT”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/pt/” />
</url>
<url>
<loc>http://www.searchandengage.com/us/contact-page</loc>
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/int/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-US”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/us/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-CA”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/us/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-IE”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-GB”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.co.uk/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-CO”
href=”http://www.searchandengage-la.com/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-MX”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com.mx/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-BO”
href=”http://www.searchandengage-la.com/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”pt-BR”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com.br/contact-page” />
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”pt-PT”
href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/pt/contact-page” />
</url>
</urlset>

It is important to note that the above is only an example of the data structure. This would need implementing for every URL within each specific language (sub-folder) or website an additional <URL> container would be added, along with the relevant xhtml:link references to every single international URL, respectively.

This would include creating sitemaps for all other searchandengage domains (i.e. www. searchandengage.co.uk) which reference the content on all the other searchandengage.com domains (i.e. www.searchandengage.com/us/, www.searchandengage.ie, etc.)

XML Sitemap production

We strongly suggest this process is developed to be automated. In order to support the creation of the static sitemap(s), you would require an output of the sites architecture in the format detailed below, ideally as a CSV file, for each URL (rows) and every country which the site targets (columns).

It would be extremely helpful for your website to also state (in the header row) which language (and country if applicable) the site is aimed towards targeting.

English speakers in all countries/no localised English website Targets English Speakers in Ireland (en-IE)
http://www.searchandengage.com/int/ http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/
http://www.searchandengage.com/int/about/contact/ http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/about/contact/
http://www.searchandengage.com/int/about/profile/awards/ http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/about/profile/awards/
http://www.searchandengage.com/int/about/profile/history/ http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/about/profile/history/
http://www.searchandengage.com/int/about/profile/overview/ http://www.searchandengage.ie/ie/about/profile/overview/
Etc… Etc…

Each produced sitemap, per territory, would then require uploading to the respective Search Console (Webmaster Tools) account.

Canonical Tag Implementation

Although the hreflang sitemaps will mitigate the main issues with duplicate content from countries with the same language, an additional consideration would be to implement canonical tags on each page of the global website to mitigate any duplicate pages being created (i.e. via query string variables).

This would benefit the site by amalgamating the authority from any identical pages. For example, on the URL ‘http://www.searchandengage.com/us/about/contact/’, the following canonical tag would be placed between the websites opening and closing <head> tags:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.searchandengage.com/us/about/contact/” />

Therefore if any links are created to other variations of this page (i.e. ‘http://www.searchandengage.com/us/about/contact/?variableA=1&variableB=2’) then Google knows not to treat this as a duplicate page and pass any authority to http://www.searchandengage.com/us/about/contact/.

Supporting Information:

Using Canonical Tags

 

Search Console Settings

Site Setup for international folders

Ideally we need to ensure that each individual country website (i.e. searchandengage.com) and sub-folder (i.e. searchandengage.com/au/) is setup within the master Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools) account. This allows granular configuration of each site’s geo-targeting settings and also the ability to submit country specific XML sitemaps (detailed within the hreflang section).

search console hreflang setup

Exampling an ideal Google Search Console account setup

Geo-targeted Configuration

Any sites/languages which target purely one country (i.e. searchandengage.se) should ideally be geo-targeted within webmaster tools to that specific country. This tells Google that that you feel this content is mainly (if not only) relevant to that country and you’d prefer Google gave ranking precedence within that specific Google engine (i.e. google.se).

search console region setting

Exampling a website being geo-targeted specifically to Sweden

Any country specific websites should ideally be geo-targeted to that specific country. In some cases, for example the US website (searchandengage.com/us/), a website may target multiple territories (e.g. US and Canada) which means it cannot be geo-targeted to only one territory. In these scenarios we need to rely purely on the hreflang elements to educate Google on the relevant territories, although an additional option, if feasible, would be to create individual sites (i.e. searchandengage.com/us/ & searchandengage.com/ca/).

It is important to note that geo-targeting settings only indicate the preferred target territory and do not mitigate any potential duplicate (and similar) content issues which could be caused through multiple websites utilising the same language specific content (i.e. a UK, US, Canada, Ireland, etc.). Therefore the implementation of hreflang is still a fundamental requirement.

Hreflang Considerations

Googlebot & User Redirection Process

Google can become confused when attempting to interpret country based IP redirects, while user-agent redirects are never recommended due to potential cloaking issues.

Our preference would be to allow Google to crawl each of the websites (without any redirects) and provide a prompt to users choosing to access any URL deemed to be targeted to the incorrect country or a different language to what they may have intended. This mitigates any potential indexing issues and adds an additional layer of usability support.

The prompt is typically coded within the HTML and a trigger via JavaScript (‘show’ or ‘hide’) if the server detects a user is requesting a URL outside of their current country location. The ‘yes’ anchor should be a link to the same page, but for the correct country/language. The ‘no’ anchor simply closes the prompt and drops a cookie to stop the prompt from further displaying while the user attempts to navigate through the preferred website.

Based on the correct implementation of other elements within this document, which will ensure the correct URL appears in the organic listings, it is very rare that these prompts will trigger. We would class this mainly as a supporting redundancy and for improving usability.

If your brand have any potential legal implications (i.e. users from a specific country cannot access a certain site) there is generally little choice but to apply a 302 redirect (as opposed to a prompt) to the correct URL, but we’d ideally prefer to mitigate this.

Our recommendation for these scenarios would be to provide similar prompt functionality, but force the user over to the correct website. Again, with hreflang correctly implemented, this should be limited to a small percentage of visitors.

Real Example

real example of language selection

Exampling visiting www.trivago.com (US version of the website) from the UK

Common Hreflang Issues

This most common mistake is when a site is trying to rank the same page in different regions, in the same language while having an incorrect or missing hreflang tag structure, for example:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-nz” href=” searchandengage.com/en” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=” searchandengage.com/en” />

This will result to random international URL versions getting indexed and incorrectly ranking for numerous pages in regional search results.

Another common mistake is when a site has implemented the hreflang tag but accidentally included a wrong country/language code. For example, using the “en-UK” instead of “en-gb”. As mentioned earlier, the easiest way to check for language and country codes is using the ISO codes listing. Both Google and Yandex search engines recommend the use of language and country code using the ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 formats respectively.

To avoid any these type of indexation inconsistencies you should follow our example below and structure your tags accordingly.  The example focuses on a US site with British, French and Spanish sub-directories for homepage URL and should look like this:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=” searchandengage.com” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-gb” href=” searchandengage.com/uk/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-fr” href=” searchandengage.com/fr/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-es” href=” searchandengage.com/es/” />

  • The highlighted elements indicate the pages that will be indexed for each audience.
  • The same hreflang structure should be followed for each individual URL you want to rank for internationally.
  • You can also try this Hreflang Tag Generator Tool by @aleyda which will help you save time when structuring hreflang tags for a large number of URLs.

Google Search Console includes an area which highlights international tagging issues that can be found on your site. Under Google Search Console > Search Traffic > International Targeting

Hreflang in search console

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