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Kaitlin McMichael

7 Common Hreflang Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Kaitlin McMichael
7 Common Hreflang Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

It is surprising how often I hear about international SEO discussed without any mention of “hreflang.” If anything, because hreflang is such a tricky subject, it should be discussed more often in conjunction with helping SEO specialists understand how to target international web audiences more accurately.

Not only is it difficult to implement correctly on your geo-targeted sites, but the purpose of hreflang is also commonly misunderstood. It has been around for a few years but SEOs who target international audiences still struggle to figure out how to use hreflang annotations correctly. These are misconceptions even among advanced SEO experts, so make sure you understand how to correctly use it to set up your international sites for success.

The Purpose of Hreflang

Hreflang annotations are meant to cross-reference pages that are similar in content, but target different audiences. You can target different audiences with hreflang according to their language and/or their country. This ensures that the correct pages will be shown to the correct users when they search on the versions of Google search that you are targeting.

Here is an example of two hreflang tags that target English speakers in the USA and English speakers in Canada:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.example.com/usa/" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-ca" href="http://www.example.com/ca/" />

Both of these tags would appear on both pages. This would ensure that Canadians searching on google.ca would find the page targeting Canadians, and Americans searching on google.com would find the page targeting Americans.

So that’s the purpose of hreflang, but often I come across mistakes and misconceptions about how to implement hreflang. Here are some of the most common:

Common Mistakes in Implementing Hreflang

Return Tag Errors

“Return Tag Errors” are the result of hreflang annotations that don’t cross-reference each other. These can be found within Google Search Console under the International Targeting tab. If your website has hreflang annotations, either via the page tagging method or the xml sitemaps method, there will be data reported on how many hreflang tags were found, and how many hreflang errors were found. If there are errors, often times those errors are “return tag errors.” Here’s an example of a site that has 412 hreflang tags with errors – all due to “no return tags”):

Return Tag Errors

Your annotations must be confirmed from the other pages. If page A links to page B, page B must link back to page A, otherwise, your annotations may not be interpreted correctly.

Often times, the “missing link” is because the hreflang tags do not include a reference to the page itself. Your annotations should be self-referential. Page A should use rel-alternate-hreflang annotation linking to itself.

Using the Wrong Country or Language Codes

When you are adding hreflang codes to your webpages, you need to be absolutely sure that you are using the correct country and language codes. According to Google, “The value of the hreflang attribute must be in ISO 639-1 format for the language, and in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for the region. Specifying only the region is not supported.”

One of the most common mistakes is using “en-uk” to specify English speakers in the United Kingdom. However, the correct hreflang tag for the UK is actually “en-gb.”

You can use hreflang generator tools like this one to figure out which values you should be using.

Combining Hreflang Sitemaps and Page Tagging Methods

There is no need to use multiple methods for hreflang implementation. Google recommends against it, since it would be redundant. You certainly can use both methods, and there is no clear advantage of one method over the other. Here are some considerations for when you are deciding whether to use the xml sitemaps or page tagging methods:

  • Hreflang xml sitemaps can be difficult to create and update. You can use online tools or create it in Excel, but it is difficult to automate the process. If you have xml sitemaps that your CMS updates for you automatically, it would be better to continue to use those rather than create separate, static hreflang xml sitemaps.
  • Page tagging leads to code bloat, especially when you are targeting several countries/languages. That can mean an additional 10+ lines of code to each geo-targeted page.
  • Some content management systems, such as WordPress and Drupal, offer automatic hreflang page tagging solutions.

Believing That hreflang Annotations Will Consolidate Link Authority

This is another common misconception that can trip up even advanced SEO experts. There have been articles published that seem to show that, once hreflang is correctly implemented across multiple top-level domains or sub-domains, the most authoritative domain gains in link authority. This has not been verified with other international SEO experts, and I have no evidence to believe this is the case either.

The best way to build link authority and consolidate it across your geo-targeted web pages is to keep your content all on one domain. Use a generic, top-level domain such as a .com, and use the sub-folder method to create your country- or language-targeted content. Here is a snapshot of a conversation I had with Gianluca Fiorelli and Martin Kura about this subject:

Twitter Conversation

Fixing Duplicate Content Issues

This is another tricky subject that deserves some nuance. Duplicate content itself is often misunderstood, and throwing hreflang into the mix makes it even more difficult to understand. Hreflang does not “fix” duplicate content issues, per se. For example, when you add hreflang tags to your site, they will appear in the International Targeting tab of Google Search Console (so Google does indeed recognize and understand them), but you will still continue to see Duplicate Title Tags and Duplicate Meta Description warnings in the HTML Improvements tab (if you have pages with duplicate titles and descriptions across your geo-targeted webpages). So if you have two pages in the same language targeting different regions, such as English in the USA and Canada, the content of those two pages may be so similar that they are considered duplicates. Adding hreflang tags will not change that. It is still possible that your American page may outrank your Canadian page, if the American page has significantly more link authority, and especially if it has links from Canadian sources.

However, hreflang tags will help to alleviate this issue. This is why hreflang tags are not enough. They provide a technical structure that helps Google sort out and understand your content, but to have a full-fledged international site(s), you need a holistic international marketing strategy that includes building link authority to your site(s) from the relevant countries/languages that you are targeting.

Hreflang is very effective at handling cross-annotations among different languages, but when it comes to same language, different regions, you can get mixed results.

Here is a snapshot of a conversation I had on Twitter with Aleyda Solis about this issue:

Twitter Conversation

Not Using Canonical Tags and Hreflang Tags Together Correctly

The hreflang tag also can be used along with rel="canonical" annotations, but hreflang tags need to reference self-referential canonical URLs. For example, page A should have a canonical tag pointing to page A, page B should have a canonical tag pointing to page B, and page C should have a canonical tag pointing to page C. All three pages should have hreflang tags that mention all three of the pages in the group. You do NOT want to canonicalize only one version of a page in a page grouping, as that would interfere with hreflang annotations.

Here is a more visual example:

On this page, http://www.example.com/usa/ the hreflang tags might say:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.example.com/usa/" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-ca" href="http://www.example.com/ca/" />

So in this case, the canonical tag for this page would be:

<link rel="Canonical" href="http://www.example.com/usa/" />

And on the Canadian page, the hreflang tags would remain the same, but the canonical tag would be:

<link rel="Canonical" href="http://www.example.com/CA/" />

Not Using Absolute URLs

This one is a heart-breaker because often everything is correct except for the simple fact that the hreflang link referenced is relative rather than absolute. There really is no margin for error with hreflang tags so make sure you are always using absolute URLs. For example, here is what NOT to do:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="/usa/" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-ca" href="/ca/" />

Google wants to be able to crawl the entire URL path, especially since many times hreflang tags reference separate ccTLDs or sub-domains.

These tips should be enough to get you started with trouble-shooting your international rankings issues. Hopefully this has been helpful, and feel free to check out my previous blog post on SEMrush about how to choose the right site structure for your international sites.

Kaitlin McMichael specializes in SEO and has a blog at Kate Ideas Marketing. She has been working in the digital marketing sphere since 2010, and has written on SEO, travel, music, and the arts for dozens of websites and magazines. Follow her on Twitter.

Comments

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Paul Keene
Hi Kaitlin,

Well done on an excellent post. I have a quick question for you. I've used hreflang tags on a large international website. However, on the English pages for the UK, USA and Australia the page content is identical and the meta tags are also identical and as a result they are now showing on GSC as duplicates. I understand that linking from region specific sites will help, this is my long-term plan but in the meantime

A. Will rewriting the meta and title tags only for each individual regions solve this issue?
B. How would this change affect Google rankings.

Thanks. Paul
Emmanuel
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Nuno Anjos
Nuno Anjos
Kaitlin,

This is a very interesting and useful article. I've implemented the hreflang tags on my automatically generated sitemaps around 2 years ago. Today I got an e-mail from Google, warning me that there were errors on my hreflang tags.

I came across your article, which helped identify 2 problems. I had 7 hreflang tags for each link, for all the other languages, the 8th hreflang tag was missing, the self-referential tag. So, I added that extra self-referential tag to every link. Is this correct?

Although, as a thought-provocking reflection, maybe this doesn't make much sense. Even browsers usually have a back button, to go back to the previous page. How hard is it for a bot like Google Bot to go back to the previous link/page?

The 2nd problem was I was using "en" for UK English and "us" for American English. Seems like Google didn't recognize "us" as American English. I had to change "en" to "en-gb" and "us" to "en-us".

I got really confused about the Canonical tags. I don't use them, only alternate tags.

From what I read on your article and on comments from other people, having hreflang correctly implemented helps improve how search engines recognize localized pages well, but doesn't solve the duplicate content issue completly. Even if some pages have the same content in American English and UK English and could generate some duplicate content issues, if they use hreflang as "en-gb" for the UK content and "en-us" for the American content, isn't this an exact distinction? Isn't this more than enough to solve the duplicate content issue? What more do bots and search engines need? This is like telling them during the day the sky is blue and during the night it's black. And they still won't know the difference?

Just my 2 cents, some of my personal experience with hreflang,

Now I don't know how long it will take for Google Bot to crawl through my huge sitemaps, but I hope the changes I made fix the problems reported by Google Search Console Team.
Kaitlin McMichael
Nuno Anjos
Hi Nuno Anjos,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm glad to hear that this article was helpful for you. You are correct that you need to have self-referential hreflang tags on all pages where hreflang tags appear. Now that you've made that fix, you should start to notice the hreflang errors diminish over the next several weeks (or if it's a large site, it could take longer). You can check those in Google Search Console. You're also right that you need to use en-gb and en-us for the hreflang values for the UK and US. That's because there are ISO code standards for those values, and you need those in order for your hreflang tags to be interpreted correctly.

In terms of duplicate content, it is always good to use more localization signals rather than just hreflang. Hreflang tags are an important foundational element for international success, but don't stop there. Keep focusing on what's best for your users by thinking -- and getting the help of local experts -- about how to create relevant content for users in each of your target locations. Google uses multiple signals to help them determine what is the best geo-targeted content for searchers in each region, not just hreflang tags. That being said, it is not the end of the world if you do nothing more to localize. But what is the point then, of having twice the amount of content on your site that is exactly the same except for the hreflang tags?

All the best to you!
Nuno Anjos
Nuno Anjos
Kaitlin McMichael
Hi again Kaitlin,

From past experience I know it takes weeks or months for our site to be crawled, it's big in terms of content.

As for your "ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2" wikipedia link, you did well to include it on your article, always helpful, but I could only find the region codes (like GB) there, not what I needed to use with hreflang which were exact tags for languages / regions, such as "en-gb".

However, I found all the tags I needed after I followed your "hreflang generator tools like this one" link. Thanks.

I totally agree with you that it's always good to use specific, relevant region related content for each different region, language or country. Makes more sense in every way.

After reading your reply, I realized you misunderstood what I meant, but I don't blame you, I was a little vague and ambiguous. Let me rephrase what I meant.

I wasn't talking about our (my company's) site in particular. I was talking in general, about all sites out there with duplicate content issues and we know there are many. My point is, for a given site, no matter if everything signaled as a different language is duplicate content, if a lot of content is duplicate, or just a minority of the content. In all cases, for all sites, just the hreflang tags alone should be enough to tell bots and search engines EXACTLY what region/language they are dealing with. What else would help search engines if they are confused about some duplicate content, if they aren't sure which region it belongs to. "en-us" and "en-gb" are exact values, sound very definitive to me, leave no margin for error or ambiguity. Another question is how Google Bot works, we don't have access to its code so we can only speculate about Google's many mysteries.

Suppose I'm a search engine and a site tells me: "Never mind if you think this content is duplicate or not duplicate, either way I want to be clear so I'm throwing at you a hreflang tag that tells you EXACTLY that this content belongs to en-us, English, United States. Now go and show it on American search results, instead of other English speaking countries.". Will I still be confused? No.

If we want to try and guess how Google works from the inside... It's a guessing game. I always follow all recommendations for better SEO I learn.

You make a good point about why have twice the amount of content on a site if it's just duplicate content. I agree with you again. On our site, we use different local currencies for each country, we also usually add specific geo-targeted ads, promotions, share local events relevant for each country, all steps to further differentiate same language different regions/countries, besides the hreflang tags.

All the best to you as well.
Kaitlin McMichael
Nuno Anjos
Sounds like you have a solid game plan in place for your international sites!

I agree that there is an aura of mystery to it all. But I do think there are at least two reasons why Google does not automatically follow the directions of hreflang tags:

1) Hreflang tags are not directives. They are more like strong suggestions. This is because sometimes they are incorrectly entered. For example, there are currently 7000+ sites that have the code snippet hreflang="en-uk" which is incorrect. It should be hreflang="en-gb" to target the UK. https://search.nerdydata.com/?...

2) If it were only as simple as setting up hreflang tags for all your geo-targeted sites, then it would be easy for webmasters to manipulate search rankings. They could create multiple websites that target tons of locales, and then walk away happy that all would show up in all the Googles 'round the world. However, sites are still ranked heavily in terms of the quality of their backlink profile. So importance and relevance of your site still play a role in determining the ranking of your web pages, even if you do have hreflang in place.
Andrew Winkel
Andrew Winkel
Kaitlin,

Callis makes some very interesting points below. Would really like to hear your replies when you have a chance. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!
Pedro Teixeira
Helpful article - thank you!

I have a questions regarding the duplicate content issue.

According to a Google Webmasters blog post "New markup for multilingual content" they recommend ahreflang for this scenario: "Multiregional websites using substantially the same content. Example: English webpages for Australia, Canada and USA, differing only in price"

And a little bit down on that same article, they wrote an update: "to simplify implementation, we no longer recommend using rel=canonical."

My interpretation is that this sort of implies that the hreflang tag somehow solves the issues of "websites using substantially the same content."

What's everyone opinion on this? Thank you
Kaitlin McMichael
Pedro Teixeira
Hi Pedro, I agree with your interpretation. That's the purpose of hreflang! With canonicals, I believe Google removed their recommendation for canonicals because there was a lot of confusion about how to use them along with hreflang. You can still use canonicals, but they need to be self-referential.
Callis
Callis
Hi Kaitlin,

There are some great points in this post, good stuff! However, there are some parts in the 'fixing duplicate content issues' section I wanted to ask some questions about if you'd be as kind to elaborate...

1) There is no explanation as to what issues you imply by fixing duplicate content. Do you speak in regards to a panda algorithm issue, cannibalisation or a manual penalty issued in GSC?

2) Advice directly from John Mueller at Google has continually recommended using hreflang to deal with duplicate content, one such example being here: https://www.seroundtable.com/b... Your post appears goes against this, so I wanted to know what your thoughts are on Mueller's advice. Is Google giving the wrong (or contradicting) information in regards to hreflang?

3) The advice you offer to fix a duplicate content issue is "a holistic international marketing strategy that includes building link authority to your site(s) from the relevant countries/languages that you are targeting." I would have thought a duplicate content issue is still going to be a duplicate content issue regardless of how many links a page(s) has. To deal with duplicate content you'd need to edit/rewrite/consolidate content to make it different, or use canonicals (which would defeat the object of having hreflang if you canonicalled to a single regional version of the site anyway). How do links help in a situation when a site has duplicated regional content, and do you know of any case studies where this approach has worked?

4) The piece uses GSC duplicate title tags as an example of duplicate content issues. GSC states on the identical title tag page; "Your title provides users and search engines with useful information about your site. Text contained in title tags can appear in search results pages, and relevant, descriptive text is more likely to be clicked on. We recommend reviewing the list and updating the title tags wherever possible." This section of GSC only highlights identical title tags and not duplicate content as far as I have always been aware. Would you therefore say duplicate title tags being flagged by Google is sufficient evidence of hreflang not resolving duplicate content issues?

5) Do you know of any case studies where a site has had known duplicate content issues, has implemented hreflang and not seen any improvements (or even worse, drops)? The best case study I know of for testing hreflang is here and the results were beneficial, but it suggests issues were cannibalisation and not penalty based: http://www.seerinteractive.com...

Any thoughts on the above would be great.

Cheers :)
Kaitlin McMichael
Hello all and thanks, Callis, for your detailed questions. Overall, I think my point about duplicate content in conjunction with hreflang has caused you to worry too much about duplicate content, rather than focus on making sure your geo-targeted content resonates with your target audiences. The important thing with international SEO is that we do things because it’s best for the user, rather than out of fear of issues such as duplicate content.

1) In regards to multiregional content, duplicate content is a common concern for webmasters because there is often the exact same content being geo-targeted to different regions. Even with hreflang correctly in place, it is possible that geo-targeted content that is in the same language will appear in the incorrect local versions of search engines. This is the extent of the concern with duplicate content for international sites; duplicate content is not going to bring about a manual penalty unless a website is doing something really spammy.

2) Hreflang is incredibly effective and a powerful tool that every multilingual and/or multiregional website should use. But it is still possible, that if you have exactly the same content for multiple regions written in exactly the same language (not localized at all for different regions) that there will still be issues with the correct geo-targeted content showing up in the incorrect local versions of Google. That
is why a holistic international SEO strategy, such as one that includes
localization, local currencies, local NAP info, etc help to strengthen and
reinforce the geo-targeting of your multilingual content.

3) In conjunction with hreflang and localization, the margin for error with multiregional content being incorrectly indexed is greatly reduced. Regional links pointing to your regional sites are also helpful. All these signals add up to help search engines better understanding which content should be shown to which users. Sites with more regional links tend to rank better in that regional version of Google.

4) Duplicate title tags and meta descriptions in Google Search Console can be used as indications that there are duplicate pages on a site. It’s a quick proxy for identifying whether there is duplication, but you’re right, it is not the same as saying there is in fact entire pages’ worth of dupe content. The point is not that duplicate title tags are evidence of hreflang not being implemented correctly. It’s that hreflang does not eliminate duplication, and that’s why the dupes in the HTML Improvements tab will remain even after you’ve implemented hreflang tags on those pages. Webmasters can safely ignore those dupes being flagged by Google because we know that hreflang will handle the duplicate content. So overall, the duplication remains, but hreflang handles it effectively.

5) I've noticed a lack of case studies that reveal the effects of hreflang - it would be great to see more! The sites I’ve worked on always see benefits from implementing hreflang. It’s always a boon when users see your geo-targeted content in the local Googles than if they see generic content.

Hope this clarifies things a bit!
Pedro Teixeira
Callis
Would like some answers to these questions too.
Kamal Gir
Do using relative URLs also cause "Return Tag Errors" in Google search console? We have used relative URLs and Google Search Console is displaying no return tags as errors. Every page is linked back and has reference to itself, but still there are return Tag errors. Please suggest.
Kaitlin McMichael
Kamal Gir
That could be the problem. Try using absolute URLs and see if the return tag errors disappear.
Kamal Gir
Kaitlin McMichael
Thanks. We updated to absolute URLs and noticed that errors are dropping day by day now.
Kamal Gir
Kamal Gir
One more thing that we would like to know is about a regional site that is targeting multiple countries. For example, we are having a website www.abc.com/anz where anz targets two countries australia and Newzealand, now how should we implement hreflang here. Will following work

to target Australia and

to target newzealand. In short repeated href with different hreflang attribute in corresponding page.

Thanks,
Kaitlin McMichael
Kamal Gir
Hi Kamal, In order to target the two countries separately, you will need separate pages. You could create one subfolder for Australia, like abc.com/au/ and one for New Zealand, like abc.com/nz/.

Unfortunately, you can't use two hreflang tags for one page.
Kamal Gir
Kaitlin McMichael
Thanks for your response but can you please see this thread https://productforums.google.c... and correct as there might be many webmasters who would be following this approach.
dsottimano
Nice post. This point "Another important thing to keep in mind when adding canonical tags is that they do not influence rankings" isn't true. Canonical instructions help influence rankings by passing authority from one page to another. Think of it as a soft 301.

"Consolidating link signals for the duplicate or similar content. It helps search engines to be able to consolidate the information they have for the individual URLs (such as links to them) on a single, preferred URL. This means that links from other sites to http://example.com/dresses/coc... get consolidated with links to https://www.example.com/dresse...." Source: https://support.google.com/web...

Link signals = ranking influence.
Kaitlin McMichael
dsottimano
Great catch - I should have that paragraph removed.
Kathleen Garvin
Kathleen Garvin
Kaitlin McMichael
Just updated the article. Thanks!
Neeraj Pandey
Neeraj Pandey
Hi,
Nice to know this But I am still confused on one issue:
Earlier we would use dot com website for all places then after sometime we brought .ca and uk domain and launched our brand there too.
Now, there' are three websites without any country level redirection,for usa and other countries dot com, CA for Canada and UK for United kingdom.
Now, should I use xdefault for dot com or en for dot com and targeting usa and all other places?
Earlier I would use x default so in CA it was ok but if someone would search brand in UK my dot com would come up first and then UK I want to bring UK first
Kaitlin McMichael
Neeraj Pandey
Hi Neeraj,

Great question. You can use either "x-default" or "en" for the dot com site. The x-default will tell Google that your dot com site is meant for all users that are not in CA or UK. Or you can choose "en" which will tell Google your dot com site is meant for all English speaking users worldwide, who are not located in CA or UK. Either option is fine.

If hreflang tags are implemented correctly, then you should no longer see the dot com site outranking the UK site within the UK.

For additional questions like this, I recommend posting a question on the Google Webmaster Central Internationalisation Forum here: https://productforums.google.c...

Good luck!
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