International SEO: The HREFLANG Tag

International SEO is one of the more difficult challenges a web organization can face today. There was a time when you could just purchase a ccTLD (country code top level domain) for the location you wanted to target, roll out a localized website, and move on.

Unfortunately, it simply is not that easy. Ever since Google started rolling out Panda updates, duplicate content has become a problem. Translated content can remove some of the risk, but what about sites targeted to English speaking markets like the United Kingdom and Australia? Many companies want to target globally, but simply do not have the support resources available to build 100% custom experiences by locale.

International SEO and the HREFLANG tag, world map

International SEO: Image courtesy of tutsking.com

The Canonical Tag

One of the most important weapons in your arsenal to protect your originally produced content is the Canonical Tag. By tagging the first / original version of the content as canonical, you are suggesting to the search engines that they should rank that as the authoritative source.

This tag was rolled out for some very specific reasons:

  1. To allow webmasters to designate what the static URL of preference is, telling the search engines that alternative versions with dynamic parameters are copies of the same page.
  2. To tell Google and other search engines that any other copies of the content that have been scraped and posted elsewhere are NOT the original.

Unfortunately, coupled with Google Panda, this can cause real problems for localized sites that share a common catalog or most of the same static content. In fact, since Google does not index mirrors, complete copies will not rank in ANY country.

The HREFLANG Tag

Several years ago, Google introduced the HREFLANG tag. This was intended to tell the crawlers what language a page is targeting.

This solution worked fine before Panda. You could designate what the canonical version was, set the HREFLANG to the alternate translated version, and it would sort itself out.

After quite a bit of uproar by the web community, Google decided to extend HREFLANG to include country. Now you can not only show that a site is targeting Spanish, but you can also designate that it is Spanish for Mexico, Argentina, Spain, or any country where the language is prevalent.

How to Use CANONICAL and HREFLANG in Tandem

Both tags are meant to be populated in the header of your website. It is very important to manage these properly. For same-language sites, the canonical is crucial to include. It is optional for translated versions (primarily if they use the exact same template, page title, URL structure, page name, etc.). For fully localized content and pages, a reflective canonical (i.e. pointing to itself) is the right way to go.

And this is not a fad or SEO gimmick – it really does work.

On the original version of the content

On the original, first set up the reflective Canonical (i.e. pointing back to the page where it appears). Then add an HREFLANG reference to each localized version of that specific page that appears on your ccTLD, subdomain, or targeted subfolder.

The exact syntax to use in the header of the original would look something like this, for a site that has an original in English and alternate versions in Spanish (targeted to the audience in Mexico) and German:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/page.aspx” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-mx” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/mx/page.aspx” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/de/page.aspx” />

On the localized version

On the localized version, the goal is to point the canonical back to the original. This is the location where it is most important to have the canonical. You have the option of omitting it from the original, but it can help if both pages (or all three in this case) agree on what the original is.

The exact syntax will be identical to that shown above:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/page.aspx” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-mx” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/mx/page.aspx” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”http://www.samplesite.com/de/page.aspx” />

Meta Language Tag for Bing and other Search Engines

Google is the main search engine that uses HREFLANG to set up country targeting. Bing and many other search engines do not.

For any of these other search engines, you need to employ the Meta Language Tag. There are two ways to set up the syntax on this tag:

<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>

Or the alternative syntax would be:

<meta name=”language” content=”English”>

If the site is only targeting a language, the latter would suffice. However, if you are targeting to language and country (e.g. Spanish for Spain vs. Mexico), use the first option.

Targeting Via Webmaster Tools

Regardless of what approach you take to your international sites (ccTLD vs. subdomain vs. subfolder), take the time to set each of them up in Google Webmaster Tools as targeting the appropriate country. It only takes a few minutes, and provides multiple benefits:

1. Allows you to target the country and local search engine for SERP placement
2. Enables you to measure each site on its own accord, regardless whether it’s ccTLD or another setup.

And if you are targeting international, just keep in mind that it’s not all about Google.

HREFLANG – XML Sitemap Option

Google recently announced that, if you choose to launch your international targeted websites in subfolders, you can now implement the HREFLANG tag in the XML sitemap. This eliminates the need to cram it into the headers of every page on all your various websites. But it turns the XML sitemap project into a beast for execution purposes.

No matter which way you choose to manage HREFLANG tags, they are critical to properly managing international content in 2012. Get familiar with it. Use it. Enjoy the benefits with your global marketing efforts.