Developing a Business Case for HREFLang Implementation
February 22, 2023
Hreflang Methods of Implementation
February 23, 2023
Developing a Business Case for HREFLang Implementation
February 22, 2023
Hreflang Methods of Implementation
February 23, 2023

Hreflang’s Basic Questions You Always Wanted to Ask

Hreflang is commonly misinterpreted and misunderstood, creating stress and frustration for SEOs and web developers. I finally had a chance to capture some of the most common questions I get or see on social media. Nuances and misinterpretations are always lost in simple answers, so the goal is to try to make it as straightforward as possible.

I have an English site that is designed for the U.S., UK, and Ireland. Can I use ‘Hreflang=en-us-gb-ie?’

Answer: No, you cannot. I give you that you are being creative and perhaps trying to be better organized.
You could use the below without specifying the countries if you only have one set of EN pages.
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”” />

Suppose you have another set of EN sites for other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and Singapore, and need to set specific target countries. In that case, you need to create a separate line for each target country, even when the page URL is the same for all three locations.

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=“en-ie” href=”” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=“en-gb” href=”” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=“en-us” href=”” />

I have one site for all Arabic-language countries of the Middle East. Can I use “ar-ME” as the setting in hreflang?

Answer: No. The two-letter ISO 3166-2 country code “ME” is for Montenegro. Hreflang can only use actual ISO language and country codes. There are no regional codes such as EU, EMEA, APAC, or ME.

Many sites have regional sites targeting Latin America (LatAm), European Union (EU), or the Middle East (ME), which represent multiple countries and often languages in a region but try to co-opt one of the ISO country codes to represent the region. You can follow these recommendations for using hreflang on regional websites.

Can I combine the canonical and hreflang tags in the same line?

Answer: No, you must separate the Canonical tag from the Hreflang tags.

<link rel=“canonical”” href=”” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=“en-gb” href=”” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=“en-us” href=”” />

If your technical SEO or developer wants to get creative, encourage another creative outlet and point them directly to the hreflang specification, as hreflang is challenging enough without deviating from the standard syntax.

We use CMS to auto-generate XML (hreflang) sitemap files. It includes URLs that don’t exist. Is it OK to keep them on the list? I see them show up on the GSC error reports. Is it bad?

Answer: Yes, this is bad.  This is a significant problem for a lot of companies.

The problem is you are explicitly asking search engines to visit and index them. When they go to the page they get a 404 not found error which wastes a request.

This is very common with some script solutions for hreflang, as they take the same URL and clone it for all markets.

Sometimes the CMS automatically creates a placeholder URL for every language or country on the site when a page is built for another language which can create multiple invalid URLs. In other cases, language selectors, JavaScript navigation rules or IP detection/redirect protocols add local market URLs even if they don’t exist.

The solution varies based on your CMS, but start by looking at URL alias, parent-child, or local page spillover rules. In many cases, these have not been set up correctly.

You can fix this by using Hreflang Builder and its testing functionality to ping URLs to ensure they are 200 indexable before they are added to the XML sitemaps.

Do I need to use hreflang to manage the same content on different domains, each targeting different countries?

Answer: Yes it is strongly recommended.

This is a widespread belief that having websites on separate domains eliminates the need for hreflang. This belief is strongest with ccTLD’s due to the domain indicating the country. While this could be true in many cases it is still recommended to use hreflang to ensure there is no ambiguity. To make your job easier, I recommend that you take advantage of Google’s Cross Domain Site Map Verification process and use a dedicated site that manages your XML site maps for all of the domains in a central location rather than having to create tickets to upload them to dozens of hundreds of unique domains.

Should I use a specific page URL or a homepage as x-default?

Answer: It depends on how your site is set up.

The x-default is nothing more than a directive to use a specific page or website for any language or market that does not have a dedicated hreflang set. That helps frame the question – “What should be shown to searchers in a market where we do not have a local website?” Unfortunately, you can only have a single setting and cannot set it up for different scenarios.

Many websites have a country/language locator page that is a great option to set for the x-default. In other cases, they want the global version of the site, or their English version as the fall-over version to be shown.

I have English and French content on the same page. Can I assign them to both languages in the hreflang tag?

Answer: Each page should only have content in one language, but multiple languages on a single page frequently happen with user-generated content in a localized template.

Google is pretty specific about this. You should set the language region to the dominant language and/or the template’s language.

Why is hreflang important for SEO?

Answer: Hreflang is important to SEO because it removes ambiguity as to the target market of a webpage. By indicating a page is for English speakers in Australia search engines will show that page in that market rather than another markets page. Also, when two near-exact pages are found by Google it may choose one of the two to index. Hreflang helps indicate each has a purpose and will index both versions.

Do I need to implement hreflang tags for all pages on my website?

Answer: Yes, if there are alternate versions of a page for other markets or languages, they should all be listed in the cluster and each of those pages should also contain hreflang tags. Hreflang tags are used on all pages, specifically the home page, category and product pages with alternate versions to designate the language and market each represents.

To Sum Up

Hopefully, this article has demonstrated that hreflang is not complex, but exciting and sometimes challenging website infrastructures increase the complexity.

Start small with a pair of languages or a subset of pages and test it.

Once you show the value, it makes a brilliant business case for management to commit the resources for larger-scale implementation.

More Resources:

Author: Bill Hunt
Bill is the President of Back Azimuth Consulting and is considered the top thought leader on Global Search Engine Marketing and is an internationally recognized Search Marketing speaker haven spoken at conferences in over 30 countries. Bill is a former Board member of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) and is the Co-Chair of the Global Committee focused on growing global awareness of the search marketing industry and providing value to SEMPO’s international base of members.

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.