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For episode 193 of The Search Engine Journal Show, I had the opportunity to interview Bill Hunt, President of Back Azimuth, world-renowned speaker, and an international SEO expert.
We talked about what hreflang is, as well as what makes it extremely valuable and complex at the same time.
What is hreflang?
Bill Hunt (BH): It originally started out as just as a meta-tag. Pretend you’re having a conversation with Google.
It’s like, “Hey, Google. I’m glad you found this page you’re on.” Then the tags says, “This page here is for the U.S. (or whatever market page you landed on). Just to let you know, I have these alternative pages for specific language regions.”
You can have a URL in there for the equivalent page for the UK, or Australia, or Spain and then what happens is, is they take that as a signal.
When somebody searches, let’s say in English where your company in the UK, Google will actually swap out .global or the U.S. URL that’s ranking with the one you’ve designated for that market.
That’s essentially what it is – and that in itself is what makes it extremely valuable but extremely complex.
How does it work?
BH: You have to have a designated page for a particular market… That’s where things get complicated.
So in the first wave, you can have a /UK. We all think of that as being the United Kingdom, but it could be that it’s the Ukrainian language.
Or does Google know that UK doesn’t mean, I don’t know, user keys or some other acronym that you have? So we needed something beyond that.
The second piece that we get a lot is people saying, “Hey, I’ve put Google Translate across 13 languages on my site, but Google is not picking those up. Can I use hreflang?”
When you look at it, it’s one page that Google Translate will spin out into X number of languages. So you technically only have one page.
A variation on this which gets creative and confusing is when somebody has, say, an English page and then a Spanish and French, and then they say you can set that the global French or global English, but you can also set it to say this global page in English is equal to the U.S. and UK and Australia.
I think that’s where people are getting creative and getting confused with how to deploy this.
But it is like you said, you have a dedicated page to a language for a market so British English is the proper way to phrase this.
You just want to make sure the search engines know that’s the page you prefer. It works very similarly to rel=”canonical”.
I have a page with tracking parameters.
I don’t want you to index the page.
With the tracking parameters, I want you to use the root version.
It works the same type of concept.
Brent Csutoras (BC): Well, it seems like we’re talking about language, but I think a lot of people interpret and it may be true to interpret it as selecting the page for the country.
Is that different and what is that fine difference?
Because the reason I say that is like what if I actually have a page that’s in English but it’s meant for people in Mexico?
So I have it in English, but I want it to be a different page for people there because it has different philosophies or different tools or different services whatever that might be.
BH: Or it’s just for your office in Mexico and because people in Mexico, a lot of people speak English that makes sense.
By definition hreflang is language. This creates complexities.
So you have an English-language site, but then when you spin out that UK, in theory, you’ve adopted it with switching out Z’s and S’s and things like that to make it…
You might use “lift” instead of “elevator.”
That is explicitly English language for the United Kingdom.
I think this is where people sort of mix this up. They think we’re setting this for the UK, but you’re just simply saying, this is English for the UK.
Back here in Mexico, one, a lot of people would have to say .com/MX/ES. So an English language page for Mexico or even the reverse.
We see this a lot in the United States where we’ve got a .com and then we’ve got it .com/ES and it’s for Spanish-speaking people in the United States.
If it’s in Spanish, Google doesn’t necessarily know what market that is. The reverse in your example for English, it doesn’t know that this is for there.
Now, we can go in and set the /ES, let’s say in your example, in Google Search Console to be for Mexico and it’s just a signal saying that this is a page specifically for Mexico even if it’s in English.
This is where this doesn’t necessarily help all the time because if people are looking for Sony, it’s not really any language so sometimes Google struggles with, “Do I want the U.S. page? Do I want the UK page? Do I want to Mexico page?”
It tries to give the best result and then it may take a secondary signal from hreflang saying, “Oh, okay. For Sony, and they’re in Mexico, let me show the one that they’ve designated for Mexico.”
But it is language-dependent, which creates some problems in itself.
BC: What about when you’re doing hreflang type tags and you’re doing a language but your U.S. site and you’re targeting a U.S. audience. Is it required in that sense?
Because it makes me think that you would want it even for every site so that some of those outside of the country specifically looking for an English site in their country with hreflang, the English version of the U.S. site.
Is that something that people need to think about or is this only for people that are really trying to be outside of the country that they’re operating in?
BH: Let’s take a couple of scenarios.
Scenario one is, is that you got your site. You get a U.S.-centric site.
It could be to straight .com and then you get a site for Australia. It could either be in, com.AU or .com/AU for Australia.
Especially if it’s a .com, Google doesn’t know that that AU means Australia. So if you have one site, let’s just simplify this.
If I have one site – one .com in English, then by effect, that’s a global site.
In that case, if that’s the only site you have, the only language version you have, then you really don’t need an hreflang because there is no language alternative.
How hard is it to implement hreflang?
BH: The tags themselves are frighteningly easy to implement. This is even stepping back one.
There are three ways you can deploy it.
First method: Use meta-tags
One tag per alternate language plus itself.
So this is the number one problem people make. They’ll say, “Hey, here’s my UK version.” But you have to have yourself in there.
There’s a couple of these celebrity SEOs that have written blog posts that indicate that your canonical tag does that for you.
That’s not true. Google’s debunked that a thousand times.
You have to say this is my English site, this is my UK or my U.S. English language, my UK English language, my Australian English language, and they ought to be in there.
This is the first dilemma with using meta-tags that you’re like Delta Air Lines or IBM, and you’ve got 165 country language combination sites, that’s 165 RSA codes.
Second method: Using XML sitemaps
We can take that code out of the page and put it into the sitemap.
Third method: Putting the tag in the head
Again, it can bloat the head. It is also more resource-intensive and complex.
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