Successfully implement international SEO thanks to “hreflang”!

What is the hreflang attribute and what functions does it have?
When is the hreflang attribute needed for successful SEO?
How is the hreflang markup structured?
What are the requirements for the hreflang attribute to work?
When is hreflang important?
What are the benefits of using the hreflang attribute?
These are the most common mistakes and how to avoid them!
These tools help you to create hreflang attributes
Conclusion: Take off internationally with hreflang!

What is the hreflang attribute and what functions does it have?

The hreflang attribute is an HTML link element, which you can find in the code of a website. There it takes an important place, especially for international pages, and helps Google to understand the geographical orientation of a website. In addition, the attribute shows the Googlebot which language is used as the default for the respective, country-specific website version. hreflang thus becomes important whenever you want to internationalize your website, that is, you want to become more visible on the international market for search queries.

When is the hreflang attribute needed for successful SEO?

A hreflang markup is always important if you want to target your website content to different countries or if it is available in different languages. It is thus an essential component of a GEO targeting strategy. To avoid duplicate content due to the different website versions, you additionally rely on the hreflang attribute. This tells the Googlebot what geographic alignment your content has, which in turn ensures that you get better SERP rankings in the appropriate target country.

How is the hreflang markup structured?

As an HTML link element, the hreflang attribute has a classic structure. It looks like this:

The picture shows the structure of a hreflang attribute. It consists of the link tag (marked yellow), which opens and closes the link content, rel="alternate" (marked blue), the hreflang attribute itself (marked red) and the link to the final URL (marked green).
Structure of a hreflang attribute

Of course, special attention should be paid to the red paragraph, where the hreflang attribute is shown in more detail. There you will recognize two element components: “xx-XX”. In first place here is the language code, and in second place is the country code. This information helps Google understand what, where and to whom to communicate. The language and country codes are so-called ISO codes. To ensure an error-free application of your hreflang attribute, you should therefore always choose the correct ISO format for the corresponding country and language. You can also use hreflang code generators to help you create the attributes without errors.

Examples of hreflang attributes with language and country codes could be as follows:

The image shows four different examples in which link elements are equipped with hreflang attributes. The upper two examples are both German-language, but once with the alignment Germany (upper) and once with the alignment Switzerland (lower). The lower example is analogous, but with the language "Spanish" and the alignments "Spain" and "Mexico".
Insight into different link elements with hreflang attributes

If you do not want to align the page to a specific region, it is also sufficient to store only the language code in the hreflang attribute. This looks like this:

The example shows a link element that contains an hreflang attribute in which only the language code is specified.
This is what the HTML code looks like when only the language code is specified in the hreflang attribute

In addition to the individual language versions that you store in the HTML code, it is important that you also create an x-default version of your website. This will be displayed to all users whose language is not (yet) covered by your website. Often the English version is used, because most users understand this language.

If the error-free implementation of hreflang tags is not possible, a hreflang-XML sitemap can help! You work through all URLs manually and then submit the sitemap to the appropriate search engine.

Excursus: Everything you should know about the hreflang XML sitemap

A XML sitemap contains all important URLs of a domain to make it easier for search engines to crawl your website. You can also use it to send hreflang information to Google and Co. This is how you build your sitemap:

For a website with an English and German language version, the XML sitemap should include the following elements:

The image shows a snippet of an XML sitemap that contains hreflang information.
This is what hreflang attributes look like when incorporated into an XML sitemap

Even though this process seems complex and time-consuming, it brings a clear advantage: You have one document in which you have all your pages at a glance. This means that you don’t always have to adapt several HTML documents for every small change. If you also sort your website language versions alphabetically, you could almost call the sitemap “clear”. Another advantage: Unlike hreflang attributes in the header, a sitemap has no effect on the load time of your page.

Once you have created your sitemap, you can submit it directly to Google Search Console. This will speed up the crawling process.

What are the requirements for the hreflang attribute to work?

One of the most important requirements to ensure that your hreflang attribute works without problems is a so-called “bidirectional link” between your pages. This means that individual websites with the same topic that exist in different language versions or for different regions must be linked to each other. This helps the crawler to better understand the network architecture and to decipher the relationship in which the individual pages stand to each other. Thus, if you implement incorrectly, it will have a negative impact on the entire network.

Example:
You already have a German website and want to provide its content for the target markets of Switzerland and France.

The image shows the interaction between a German, a Swiss and a French website, which are linked via the hreflang attribute.
Here’s how your websites need to be linked together

In the course of the bidirectional connection, all foreign-language websites must therefore be linked to the origin website. In addition, each website also needs a link to itself. These are so-called self-referential links or backlinks. Note that the French and Swiss sites must also be linked to each other in order to complete your network correctly. In addition, of course, each of these pages also need a backlink.

Note: All URLs you provide for different languages or countries need an hreflang attribute pointing to the original page, to all other URLs in the network and to itself.

When is hreflang important?

There are two very specific application areas for which the hreflang is essential:

  1. The target audience in the target country and in the country of origin speak the same language
  2. The target audiences in the respective target countries speak different languages

Case One: Same language, different countries

This is relevant, for example, if you are an American company looking to expand to Canada, the UK, Singapore, or other English-speaking countries. Here you should create another website for the corresponding target market, as the assortment often differs and the currencies also differ. To address your target group perfectly there, another website with hreflang attribute, including language AND country code is necessary. The whole thing would thus look like this:

The image shows an example of a website that uses the same language (here English) for different regions (in this case USA, UK, Canada, Singapore).
An example of hreflang attributes for multiple countries where the same language is spoken

This example now instructs that the English version of the website should also give “sample page” for users from the UK, Canada and Singapore. As a result, the users of the corresponding target markets will get the appropriate URL played out, which you can customize to suit the countries’ needs.

Case Two: Different languages, different countries

Your website is already available in two language versions – for example English and German – because this corresponds exactly to your target group. The bottom line is that you don’t want the respective websites to focus on a specific country. Rather, you want both the German and the English versions to be played out to potential customers worldwide. This is what your hreflang attribute should look like:

The image shows a German and an English example of a link element including hreflang attribute without specific country alignment.
An example of hreflang attributes that do not align to any specific target country

As you can see, in this example there is no country code that specifies a particular target country. As a result, your website will be played out internationally.

What are the benefits of using the hreflang attribute?

If you add the hreflang attribute to your website, it will give you two immense advantages:

  1. Identical texts, but intended for different countries, are not considered duplicate content. Through the hreflang attribute, the Googlebot recognizes that these are two different pages, which protects your domain from being penalized by Google and the deterioration of your rankings.
  2. The hreflang attribute is also important to avoid that in a country like Switzerland your German-language website is played out. Thus, only the appropriate version of your website, which has been adapted for this country, appears in the regional search results. Users will only receive information relevant to their region. This is important for your GEO targeting strategy.

These are the most common mistakes and how to avoid them!

Of course, there are also possible sources of errors when using the hreflang attribute. You should know these in advance to avoid them as good as possible.

No consistent implementation of hreflang

It happens so quickly: a new page is created and already the hreflang tag is forgotten. This is bad, because it should be present on really all indexable URLs, as long as you use them in multiple languages or for multiple regions. Watch out: Often this also happens during a relaunch of the website.

Note: All indexable URLs that exist in multiple languages or for multiple regions need an hreflang tag!

No self-referential links

One of the basic tasks of a hreflang tag is that it must not only link pages to each other correctly, but also link to itself. However, this so-called self-referential link or backlink, is often forgotten. This has the consequence that the search engine can not read the page correctly.

No correct language and/or region codes

Language codes are always specified in the hreflang attribute in ISO 639-1 format and country codes in ISO 31166-1 Alpha 2 format. So make sure you implement this correctly in your hreflang to avoid confusion or errors. What doesn’t matter at all, however, is case sensitivity. This is because Google completely ignores them when using the codes.

Note: hreflang does not support any other ISO formats except the two mentioned above!

Canonicalized URLs have an hreflang tag

If you use a hreflang attribute for a canonicalized URL, the canonical tag is completely ignored. This in turn means that the page is again indexable. In addition, to make matters worse, the hreflang is ignored, which means that you are entirely worsening the effect on your page, as Google may judge the content as duplicate content.

Note: URLs that already have a canonical must not get an hreflang attribute assigned!

Paginated URLs have an hreflang tag

This can’t really be called an “error” directly, but you should still pay attention especially for websites that are on “noindex”. Here it is an absolute taboo to insert the hreflang attribute.

Note: Paginated URLs and hreflang only get along if the page is indexable and has a self-referential canonical.

These tools help you to create hreflang attributes

Of course, you don’t have to be the super HTML pro yourself to handle the hreflang attribute. There are tools available to help you create them error-free.

Sistrix offers two tools that help you to generate or check the hreflang attribute correctly. You can find them here:

Of course, there are other tools you can use as well. For example, another tool is the hreflang tag generator by Geo Targetly. Also, there are plugins for WordPress that will make your life easier. For example, Multilingual Press Pro or the WPML.org plugin are recommended here.

Conclusion: Take off internationally with hreflang!

Even if a lot of work is waiting for you when implementing an international website: it is worth it! The development of new target markets not only presents you with new challenges, but also gives you entirely new opportunities. Just always remember to add the hreflang attribute to really every single URL – even if you add new languages to your website. This is the only way to ensure that your multilingual website will really run properly.

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