Google’s Guide To Simplifying Hreflang Implementation
John Mueller of Google explains a simplified method for implementing hreflang tag attributes.
According to Google Search Advocate John Mueller, hreflang implementation does not have to be as difficult as people believe.
Hreflang is one of the more perplexing aspects of technical SEO, but it is also one of the most critical for international businesses and publishers.
Mueller outlines a simplified approach for publishers to follow in response to a Reddit thread.
The Issue with Hreflang
Hreflang is a link attribute that tells Google what language is being used on a page. With that information, Google can display the page version that corresponds to the language being searched for.
Without the hreflang attribute, Google may serve pages in a language that the searcher does not understand or pages specific to a country where the searcher does not live.
A user on Reddit’s r/TechSEO forum is looking for advice on how to use hreflang for websites in multiple countries.
They inquire whether they can get by with only a partial implementation of hreflang. For example, they are implementing website versions in the same language, such as in Germany and Switzerland.
The alternative is to use hreflang to link all versions of all pages, which is a lot of work.
Mueller believes that is the best solution, but it is not practical:
“In an idea [sic] world, you’d link all versions of all pages with hreflang. It would be the clean approach, however, sometimes it’s just a ton of work, and maintaining it if the sites are run individually is… good luck with that.”
Although using hreflang on every page is the ideal solution, Mueller claims it doesn’t have to be that complicated.
The Solution for Hreflang
First, Mueller suggests determining what needs to be fixed.
Determine whether there is a problem with searchers landing on the incorrect site version.
If this is not the case, you may not need to use hreflang.
“In practice, you can simplify the problem. Where do you actually see issues with regard to people coming to the wrong country/language site? That’s where you should minimally implement hreflang (and, of course, a JS country/language recognizer/popupper to catch any direct visits). A lot of that will probably be limited to same-language/different-country situations, so Switzerland/Germany in German may be the right place to start. Nothing breaks if you set up for 2 versions and have 4 unrelated versions.
If you already have these sites running, I’d check your analytics setup for traffic from Search, and compare the country where they come from with the country that they end up in (pick one country, filter for the traffic from search, and compare the domains they end up on). If you don’t find a big mismatch there, most likely you don’t need to do a lot (or anything) for hreflang. There is no bonus for hreflang, it’s only about showing the most-fitting page in search for users in a specific country/language.”
Look at which pages searchers are landing on next. One of the most common errors Google can make is serving the incorrect version of a website’s homepage.
Because brand names are not always localized, Google isn’t always sure which version of a homepage to serve if that’s all a user types into the search box.
You can get away with a partial implementation of hreflang if you discover that searchers are landing on the incorrect homepage but there are no issues with other pages.
“When checking, focus on the most likely mistakes first: same-language / different-country sites are one, but there’s also homepage traffic. Often times a brand name is not localized, so when people search for it, it’s unclear to search engines what the expectation is. If you find a lot of mismatches on the homepage but not elsewhere on the site, you can also just do hreflang across the homepages (that’s often easier than all the pages on a site). Or you could do a combination, of course, all homepages + all German-language pages. Hreflang is on a per-page basis, so the beauty (and curse) is that you can pick & choose.”
Finally, Mueller emphasizes that checking to see if there is a genuine problem with hreflang can save a lot of time.
In some cases, Google may serve the correct versions of pages on its own, in which case adding hreflang is pointless.
“In any case, before you rush off and work on this for a year, double-check that it’s an actual problem first, and if so, check where the problem is. Maybe there are super-simple solutions (maybe you just need a country/language popup and don’t even need the rest?), and you can spend your time more wisely elsewhere.”
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