Everything You Need to Know About the hreflang Tag and Its Use

If you are running a multi-language site with content in several languages, then you need to correctly understand the purpose of the hreflang tag and use it correctly. Why do you need to have this tag in your site marking? What purpose it serves and how to implement it in the most effective way? We will answer all these questions further in this post so that you could have an idea of the practical value of hreflang for your site promotion.

Basic Use Cases

Do you want residents of different regions to find in search results site pages designed specifically for them? It is one of the many problems that SEO specialists encounter when promoting a site to several countries or regions; competent targeting is of crucial importance for such projects. To help search engines understand which site languages ​​are available to users, as well as for which regions the site sections are intended, experts use certain link attributes. Let’s go into detail about the hreflang and alternate attributes, their purpose, as well as proper implementation and impact on SEO.

Why Do You Need These Tags at All?

The primary goal of having hreflang in the page markup is to help search robots understand the following:

  • What languages ​​the website pages are translated into;
  • For which regions its sections are intended;
  • Which pages have a mobile version. 

Hreflang is a technical solution for websites with the same content in multiple languages. For example, the user is a resident of France; the site page is in English in the search results, but there is also a French-language version of the website. In this case, your goal is to make sure that the specific Google user is viewing the page in French. You can use hreflang tags to indicate that a particular webpage is for US residents and that another one is supposed for British people. At the same time, you can create two different pages for users in Germany and Austria. This is exactly the purpose hreflang serves.

The attribute is a handy solution not only for sites that have identical content in multiple languages; it also prevents pages from being glued together during indexing. As a rule, hreflang is used in three cases:

  1. To indicate regional versions of content (e.g., en-us and en-gb);
  2. To indicate content in different languages (requires having a language code in the site URL);
  3. For a combination of different languages ​​and regional differences.

The hreflang attribute is a prerequisite in the site markup if:

  • There are pages with identical content but in different languages (fixes the issue of plagiarized content and duplication).
  • Translation applies to some elements of the page. Similar cases occur on sites where content is created by the users themselves (forums, social networks).
  • The site has a number of almost identical pages designed for different regions.

In all these cases, the attribute prevents the problem of content duplication and its proper ranking by search engines. On top of that, the proper use of the hreflang tag will help you effectively target your key landing pages and ensure high traffic to your online resource. This is actually one of the functions that the canonical tag performs. The questions – what is a canonical tag and why should you use it – will be answered further in the post.

Benefits of hreflang for SEO

If there are more than two language versions of your site, search engines will not be able to correctly perceive and display the required language versions in search results without the hreflang attribute. In case of optimizing multilingual sites, hreflang is a mandatory element for a number of reasons:

  • It avoids duplicate content on the site. For example, when a page is available in English for UK and US residents and contains similar content for both countries, the hreflang attribute will help indicate to the search engine that these versions of the site are for different regions.
  • It helps expand your international reach.
  • Increases conversion and decreases bounce rate.

Basics of Technical Implementation

There are some basic hreflang embedding rules that you need to comply with in order to make sure that there are no errors on the back-end:

  • The attribute is written in the markup for each page separately.
  • Alternative pages must have the 200 OK status and be open for indexing.
  • Set to “x-default” to indicate the default language page to visitors for whom no alternative page versions were found.
  • Page muli-versioning is to be “visible.” If you have several different language versions of the same page with different URLs, use hreflang to tell the search engines about it.

You can implement the hreflang attribute through:

  • HTML tags;
  • HTTP headers;
  • XML Sitemap.

For its proper interpretation by search engines, the hreflang attribute must include language and country information. The language attribute must conform to the ISO 639-1 format (two-letter code). It sometimes happen that webmasters make mistakes in the region code, so use the official lists for verification. Google can fix some common issues in region codes. For example, en-uk and en-gb. However, en-eu won’t work as eu doesn’t show the region.

The Combo of hreflang and rel = canonical

The hreflang attribute can be used in a combination with canonical. The rel = ”alternate” hreflang = ”x” and rel = ”canonical” values can be used together. For each language, there should be a rel = ”canonical” link pointing to itself. Don’t make the mistake of linking the rel = “canonical” tag to the home page of its main language version – this will break the attribute’s implementation correctly. It is very important that hreflang links point to the canonical page versions for each language version because these systems need to work hand in hand!

Supporting Proper Work of hreflang Functionality

Based on the above, it is no doubt that the hreflang attribute is extremely important, so you need to have it in place for your multi-language online projects. However, it is also important that the people in your company who work with the content on the site know about hreflang. Do not overlook the fact that setting up hreflang seems to be a rather laborious process and that there are many nuances to consider.