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Hreflang and Market Website Misalignment

Multiple clients and prospects have asked when Google will get smart and present their business correctly.  They often demand to speak to someone in charge to emphasize the problems Google is causing for their business. I asked them to explain the shortcomings, and it came down to Google not presenting market-specific content in the way they wanted.  Some of these misalignments are noted below.  When having these conversations, I try to get them to understand why they might be happening and suggest solutions. The two biggest challenges are typically a difference in objectives and a lack of clarity. 

Google is trying to present the best content to searchers within a specific context of each query intent and the language preference and some cases, where relevant, the location of the searcher. If a user searches for Nike running shoes in English or Nike-Laufschuhe in German, is there a market function to the results?  To Google and the user, the result should be information on Nike’s selection of running shoes.  Marketers and local band teams may argue there is a market implication to this query by a searcher in Berlin since this query has commercial intent, and the searcher should be shown Nike’s German website where they can learn and, most importantly, purchase from Nike Germany vs. any other market.

The business wants/needs to present specific content to achieve market-specific business objectives requiring market-specific websites.  By offering different websites to users in different countries, companies can personalize various aspects of the website, including the language, currency, and content. KPIs are implemented around traffic and conversions in each market to support investment performance. 

Challenge 1 – Google not aware of your marketing plans

Unfortunately, Google may not get a copy of your go-to-market strategy memo and present the best language results for the searcher’s query. 

The local Australia team was upset that the US page for a product appeared in Australian search results rather than the local page and blamed it on hreflang not working.  I asked for both pages to confirm that hreflang was set.  They told me the US page was the new version of the product that had not been released yet in Australia.  For the product name, Australia wanted the previous version to show in Australia so they could sell that inventory. 

My first question was, how would Google know this?  The searcher in Australia queries for the blue widget as that is the product’s name but did not put the most recent model number, let’s say 3.0.  Google was showing the US page we assume, since there was a lot of social chatter and links to the launch of the new product.  If we do a search in Australia for Blue Widget 2.0, the local page appeared as it was the only page in Australia, and there was an hreflang indicating local versions. 

Option 1 – update hreflang to link the new US page to the current Australia page.  The problem is the old version is still available in the US, so it might impact which page ranks.  The team must remember to unlink and link the new product page once available, creating extra work that may not get implemented. 

Option 2 – Create a detailed coming soon page with info on the new product version and add it to the hreflang cluster.  Once indexed and hreflang detected, this page should replace the US.  The local team was against this option since it would introduce consumers to new products and potentially shift sales. 

Option 3 – IP detect users from Australia to the US page and route them to the previous product page in Australia. 

Challenge 2 – Google prefers the most relevant page

A prospective client using hreflang tags was not happy that when a search for their brand name was done on local markets, the global home page was appearing vs the local home page.  Since this branded query was one of the most popular, this global page stole a lot of organic traffic from the markets.  This happens due to that page being the most valuable page.  They argued it did not exist as there is a 302 redirect that routes visitors to a market based on their IP.   We countered, indicating that due to the use of the 302 (temporary redirect), Google kept the page indexed.

This seemingly invisible page has 20 million backlinks, including links from nearly every page on every market site.  It is the poster child of the brand.  This URL was not in the hreflang tag cluster, making it a free agent and the most relevant page for this brand query. 

Option – Set the primary home page to the x-default and all of the other market home pages to their respective markets.  Note you need to use hreflang XML sitemaps since the global home page will never validate due to the 302.  

Challenge 3 – Google not aware of product availability

A very common problem is when Google shows the wrong market page or products not sold in a market to searchers in a specific language. For example,  they were not happy the France webpage for red widgets appeared in Canada for French language searches for the product.  This product is available in the US, France, and Morocco. The hreflang is set mapping alternates between those three markets.  I had to explain that hreflang does not exclude pages from appearing.  Yes, the hreflang is set to French for France, but the searcher did a brand query with a French qualifier, and since there are two pages for the Brand in French, Google showed them to Canadians resulting in a high bounce due to the price showing in Euros. 

Option –  There is not a hreflang solution for this problem other than adding a page in Canada if there is enough business needed to offer it.  You can trigger a popup based on their IP notifying them the product is not available in Canada and capture their email for notification when it is or if there is an alternate product. 

Respecting the Purpose of Hreflang

Remember, the purpose of hreflang elements is twofold. First, they are a method for site owners to explicitly state a specific webpage’s language or language region AND indicate that a URL has one or more equivalent (alternate) URLs with similar content designated for another specific language or language region. Hreflang does not exclude pages from any version of Google and cannot infer any information other than those two factors. Google does not need to understand nuances and represent micro triggers for unique go-to-market cases. The better businesses can understand the goals of the searcher and Google and try to align with them, the more successful they will be.

Bill Hunt
Bill Hunt
Bill Hunt is the President and primary architect of Hreflang Builder, with over 25 years of Search Marketing experience working with multinational companies.